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Care for the Care Economy

Building back after the pandemic.

COVID-19 has achieved one positive change that four decades of advocacy failed to achieve. It has forced society to recognize that care work is essential and needs to be considered part of a well-functioning economy. Care work can be broadly described as work, paid or unpaid, that helps others meet their basic needs. The pandemic also drilled home an awareness that work done by low-paid care workers may be more important than work done by high earners. It debunked the myth that salary scales reflect the value of the work performed. Will these learnings carry over into post-pandemic society?

The upcoming budget debate will show whether Canadians have learned any of these lessons. Will the plans to build back better include a recognition that caring for others – the care economy – needs support to play its vital role? Or will we revert back to neo-liberal economics that treat care work and social services as either a drain on the economy or extras that are nice-to-have but not affordable?

Retire tired myths

The pandemic blurred the lines between paid and unpaid care work, as work and school blended with household duties in time and space. The post-pandemic recovery offers a fresh start from some of the old, tired myths and debates about care work. Globally women occupy a much higher percentage of the low-paid care sector jobs and perform more than 75 percent of the unpaid care work, but there is some evidence that gender roles also blurred during the pandemic. Care work is under-paid because it is under-valued. Now that we understand the essential value of care work, wage scales and benefit packages need to reflect that reality. The pandemic may also shift the old moral chestnut that care work should be volunteer because it is motivated by love instead of personal benefit. COVID-19 showed the many harmful impacts when loving care workers need to work two jobs to make ends meet.

Invisible heart of our economy

It seems to me that Christians should be leading the charge for greater recognition and support of the care economy. Care for God’s creation and God’s created beings is the central call in Scriptures. Jesus replaced the socially stratified norms of his day with one central command to love your neighbor.

Economist Nancy Folbre described care work as The Invisible Heart of the economy in a book by that name. She argues that love and economic reciprocity are essential, compared to Adam’s Smith’s concept of the invisible hand of self-interested supply and demand as the defining force of economics. One might say that COVID was an economic heart attack and now the heart of our economy needs attention. Other voices, such as economist Bob Goudzwaard, have promoted alternative economic policies that include recognition of care work. Those ideas have always lost out, also among Christians, to policies that treat production of goods and profits as priorities and care work as secondary or charity.

The myth that we first need traditional “hard” economic growth, such as factories and roads, in order to afford “soft” care work has been exposed as faulty. Economists have now documented, for example, that investments in child care creates 2.7 times the number of jobs as investments in construction. Social infrastructure can contribute to economy recovery as much as the highly touted “shovels in the ground” infrastructure projects. Workers in the care economy also pay taxes. This is particularly relevant now since more women lost jobs in the retail and service sectors, in what is being called the “she-cession.”

Building back better will require greater burden-sharing of both unpaid care work and the costs of paid care work, such as providing a living wage for low-paid care workers in elder care and child care. What could be more Christian than sharing the benefits and costs of living out the central command to all of us to take care of our neighbors? Putting economic policy back into its place to support a caring society instead of the caring society serving the false god of economic growth could be a lasting legacy of this pandemic.

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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