a bird and a bottle

Facing the Care Crisis
February 26, 2007, 5:38 pm
Filed under: feminism/s & gender, news, news & views, politics, reproductive justice

Over at TomPaine today, Ruth Rosen, a fellow at the Longview Institute, a progressive think tank, echoes what I have been thinking for some time now: if we are ever going to have true equality for women, we not only have to win on obvious issues like abortion and birthing rights, but we also need to be the ones to frame the debate about work, family, and education. We need to take back the word family in order to allow women (and men) to better balance their family lives with their professional lives, and to be able to do so working only one job. She writes:

he right wins the rhetorical battle by stressing “values” and “faith.” In the name of the family they campaign to ban gay marriage and save unborn children. Yet they refuse to embrace public policies that could actually help working families regain stability and balance.

How right she is. Lynn Paltrow and others have long questioned how such anti-woman, anti-family policies can be pro-life. It’s time to bring that into the mainstream. I shouldn’t get funny looks when I walk down the street wearing a Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice button that reads “pro-faith, pro-family, pro-choice.” But I do. Because “family” has become the purview of the right, and they have defined it all too narrowly.

Rosen believes that in order to confront the right’s hypocrisy, we’ve got to do more to make what issues are still private, public:

The great accomplishment of the modern women’s movement was to name such private experiences—domestic violence, sexual harassment, economic discrimination, date rape—and turn them into public problems that could be debated, changed by new laws and policies or altered by social customs. That is how the personal became political.

Although we have shelves full of books that address work/family problems, we still have not named the burdens that affect most of America’s working families.

Call it the care crisis.

It’s a good start. The feminist movement accomplished so much. But we are now confronted with the questions created by that success combined with the ever-rising cost of healthcare, the ballooning number of hours in the American workweek, stagnant minimum wage, and restricted public welfare. All that, plus our federal government’s tendency to ignore or minimize widespread public problems when an influential private interest (here, HMOs) is at stake. Rosen is fully aware that this care crisis affects not only would-be soccer moms in chinos and minivans, but also — or perhaps even more so — single mothers struggling to make ends meet:

Some legislation passed by Congress has exacerbated the care crisis rather than ameliorated it. Consider the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which eliminated guaranteed welfare, replaced it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and set a five-year lifetime limit on benefits. Administered by the states, TANF aimed to reduce the number of mothers on welfare rolls, not to reduce poverty.

TANF was supposed to provide self-sufficiency for poor women. But most states forced recipients into unskilled, low-wage jobs, where they joined the working poor. By 2002 one in ten former welfare recipients in seven Midwestern states had become homeless, even though they were now employed.

TANF also disqualified higher education as a work-related activity, which robbed many poor women of an opportunity for upward mobility. Even as the media celebrate highly educated career women who leave their jobs to become stay-at-home moms, TANF requires single mothers to leave their children somewhere, anywhere, so they can fulfill their workfare requirement and receive benefits. TANF issues vouchers that force women to leave their children with dubious childcare providers or baby sitters they have good reasons not to trust.

The Care Crisis is a huge issue. It bridges race, socio-economic status, and age. But it’s not been front and center in American politics. In fact, unlike polarizing issues like abortion or the death penalty, it’s rarely talked about at all. For this, Rosen rightly blames elected officials on both sides of the aisle, and calls for change:

Confronting the care crisis and reinvigorating the struggle for gender equality should be central to the broad progressive effort to restore belief in the “common good.” Although Americans famously root for the underdog, they have shown far less compassion for the poor, the vulnerable and the homeless in recent years. Social conservatives, moreover, have persuaded many Americans that they—and not liberals—are the ones who embody morality, that an activist government is the problem rather than the solution and that good people don’t ask for help.

The problem is that many Democrats, along with prominent liberal men in the media, don’t view women’s lives as part of the common good. Consciously or unconsciously, they have dismissed women as an “interest group” and treated women’s struggle for equality as “identity politics” rather than part of a common national project. Last April Michael Tomasky, then editor of The American Prospect, penned an essay on the “common good” that is typical of such manifestoes. It never once addressed any aspect of the care crisis. Such writers don’t seem to grasp that a campaign to end the care crisis could mobilize massive support for this idea of the common good, because it affects almost all working families.

Rosen believes the care crisis signals an unfinished sex equality revolution. She’s right. But that’s also too narrow. Because not only does this care crisis expose the loose ends of the feminist movement, but it also lays bare the fact that this is more than an issue of sex equality. It’s about minimum wage and the right to a living wage; it’s about the rights of immigrants; it’s about welfare programs that actually meet people’s needs and help them out of poverty rather than tying them to it; and it’s about national healthcare. Sure, these are feminist issues. But so long as they remain only feminist issues, they will remain a pipe dream. Rosen is right to think big, but I think she’s not thinking quite big (tent) enough.


1 Comment so far
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I just starting reading your blog, and I think this post is right on. Policies that are pro-abortion are also pro-family and pro-child, and it’s exactly that link that has been missing in the public debate. I love what you’re writing and love the eclectic and interesting subject matter you’re finding and sharing. THANKS and love.

Comment by Talia

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