Better Life Lab

It Isn’t in Your Head. America’s Care Crisis Is Getting Worse.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock.

With the rising cost of child care, an absence of available caretakers for our rapidly aging population, and many Americans trying to face these problems with long working hours, sparse benefits, and little flexibility, the care economy is at once crucial to the future U.S. population and more precarious than ever. In a new essay out Wednesday, feminist scholar Nancy Fraser, a professor of politics and philosophy at the New School for Social Research, argues that increasingly common calls for “work-life balance” fall short of answering the urgency of the ongoing care crisis in the United States. I asked her to explain what’s behind our collective feeling of being overstretched at work and at home and how it is things got this bad in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Haley Swenson: What do people mean when they talk about a “care crisis”?

Nancy Fraser: Essentially, the popular understanding of this is the time crunch: the fact that households have to contribute many more hours to paid work to make ends meet and don’t have secure, well-paying jobs to the degree they used to in the past. So you’ve got all these jobs in the gig economy and lots of people running around working more than one job, and as a result, there’s the whole question of what happens on the homefront.

We have high-powered professional women in very demanding careers who are well-paid but who are also putting in very long hours. They have the wherewithal to hire out care work. For those who really don’t have the wherewithal to pay for the care that they might have otherwise provided for themselves and their families if they had more time, they are forced to make all kinds of ad hoc arrangements. You know, bartering care: “You take my kids today; I’ll take your son tomorrow.” People experience it as a personal problem, but it’s actually a structural, societywide problem due in part to changes in the structure of work and the structure of compensation.

What kicked off the 2007–2008 financial crisis was the housing market. You know it’s part of the American dream to own your own house. That people have a safe place to raise families is absolutely fundamental to care. With subprime loans we saw 10 million foreclosures. 10 million. So that was the triggering effect of the 2008 financial crisis.

And then you add in the fact there that there are all these fiscal pressures to cut public programming and public forms of support—you have lots of schools that have cut after-school programs. That’s the kind of thing that goes first.

So when did when did the current care crisis start? Hasn’t it always been this way?

Under the New Deal, there was something close to a solution. The idea was that a working man should be paid a wage that was sufficient to support the whole family so that the wife wouldn’t have to work in a full-time demanding job. And this was a period where, not just for the upper class but even for the working classes, you had something like a male breadwinner/female homemaker model. That really meant that you didn’t have the kind of severity of the time pressures and the sacrifice of the care stuff. However, this is not a golden age that we want to try to return to. Black Americans never had this kind of wage structure. Black American women always did wage work in much greater proportions than white women. And even women who benefited most from the family wage system were still dependent on men.

So we got a critique of the family wage from second-wave feminism that converged with the unraveling of the New Deal and its replacement with a financially dominated form of capitalism, along with the relocation of manufacturing away from the U.S. The family wage was being undone by these changes in economic organization at the same time we were criticizing it for completely different reasons. This started and exacerbated the care crisis.

How do we make sure that feminist responses today are actually getting at the heart of this care problem?

We’re past the point where feminism can sort of deal with women’s issues as if they were separate from and isolated from the macro picture of what’s happening in society.

It’s not like the wealthier women are not victims of sexism, but with respect to the care crisis, they have a strategy for dealing with that that involves outsourcing their care to low-wage or precarious workers, usually women of color or immigrants. So, if you don’t look at the big picture, you end up with a feminism whose principal beneficiaries can only be not quite the top 1 percent of women, but maybe the 10 percent. And the overwhelming majority of women are not cracking any glass ceilings. They’re in the basement.

When you look at the whole political landscape, is there a movement, a particular policy idea, anything, that you’re feeling hopeful can fix our care crisis?

Well, the editor of Social Reproduction Theorythe volume I have an essay in—Tithi Bhattacharya, and other contributors have organized on the idea of the “feminism for the 99 percent,” the idea that feminism should start with the whole of working women, the needs of domestic workers, women working in agriculture, immigrant women. Let’s treat their situations as the norm and see what kind of feminism develops.

That’s the hopeful idea. Whether it gets traction depends on lots of other things. I think we have a political crisis in the U.S.—a crisis of legitimacy where all sorts of people are rejecting the established political elites and parties. So you get this Trump business on one side, and you have the Sanders phenomenon on the Democratic side. And this is happening all over the world; it’s not just true in United States. I think that the prospect of feminism for the 99 percent depends on the larger landscape, and I think we should be working in tandem with left-wing populist progressives.