Isaac Stanley explains why care is infrastructure.

Biden’s much-discussed Infrastructure Bill eventually passed into law in October in the US. This followed extensive political wrangling between different wings of the Democratic Party. The current ill is a rather different beast to the version first proposed back in April. The original Bill had provoked a conceptual discussion of a type rather unusual in mainstream politics. The spark for this was the proposed inclusion of $400bn in investment into home care for the elderly and disabled, as well as into improving conditions for their care workers.

Republicans complained that care is not “real” infrastructure. Democrats and their allies retorted that the game has changed, and insist that care now deserves this label just as much as bridges and roads. As the chair of White House Council of Economic Advisors, Cecilia Elena Rouse, declared: “I couldn’t be going to work if I had to take care of my parents. How is that not infrastructure?”

This expanded conception of infrastructure did not survive the brutal pruning necessary to achieve the bill’s passage through the Senate. But the debate that it provoked invites us to consider where such a view of infrastructure might take us.

What does it mean to define care as essential infrastructure?

What does it mean to define care as essential infrastructure? Certainly, it recognises care’s necessity for other productive activities. But it also holds a more radical implication: to throw into question the conceptualisation of productivity and value on which the dominant economic order is built. It suggests a new paradigm for imagining economic transformation, in which human and planetary life and wellbeing are prioritised over growth.

Challenging devaluation

Feminist economists have drawn attention to the firmly embedded hierarchies in capitalist societies resulting from the gendered division of labour: “productive” labour is associated with men, while “reproductive” labour is associated with women. Reproductive labour is the work of social reproduction or “life-making”: sustaining our everyday existence through providing care, preparing food, maintaining relationships, and attending to hygienic, emotional and other needs. It is closely associated with the domestic sphere, where it is usually unpaid. However, in contemporary capitalist societies much of it also takes place outside the home, in schools, hospitals, creches or in offices by out-of-hours cleaners.

From the viewpoint of mainstream economics, reproductive labour is invisible or undervalued. The result of this deeply-embedded hierarchy is that even in societies with usually high rates of employment and high gross domestic product, people who do reproductive labour often struggle to secure their own wellbeing.

The crisis surrounding adult care in many high-income countries is a striking illustration. The recent trends of an ageing population, increasing life expectancy, and a growing proportion of women entering waged labour outside the home have not been matched by a proportionate expansion in publicly-funded services to meet the care needs of the elderly, sick and disabled.

Much evidence indicates that the positive effects of a longer lifespan are often negated by loneliness, social exclusion, and vulnerability to abuse.

The consequences are well-documented.  For unpaid family members – usually women – the attempt to provide care at the expense of, or in addition to, paid employment, leads to exhaustion and/or material hardship. Paid care-workers have been the victims of a race to the bottom in terms of pay, conditions and security. Disproportionately represented among them are migrant women, often forced to neglect or leave behind their own children. Finally, the recipients of care also suffer.  Much evidence indicates that the positive effects of a longer lifespan are often negated by loneliness, social exclusion, and vulnerability to abuse. 

The care sector illustrates the tragic results of the devaluation of reproductive labour. Defining care as infrastructure challenges this devaluation, asking us to take it seriously and invest in it, rather than treating it as a “gift of nature” or something to be procured on the cheap. It asks us to go beyond clapping for our essential workers to substantially improving their material conditions and wellbeing in the long term.

Beyond productivity

Defining care as infrastructure calls into question dominant understandings of productivity and value, and in doing so suggests possibilities for new approaches to industrial strategy.

The revival of political interest in the idea of industrial strategy is closely associated with the pursuit of productivity growth. It is characterised for the most part by a relentless fetishisation of high-tech frontier industries.

When mainstream industrial policy-makers momentarily shift their attention to low-paid activities such as care, they are often defined as “low-productivity” sectors, in which productivity must be raised to increase wages. The idea that productivity growth straightforwardly determines wage growth has been thoroughly challenged, theoretically and empirically. But even leaving these challenges aside, the case of care throws light on the fundamental perversity of a productivity-centric approach.

Care reveals the dangerous implications of pursuing endless productivity increases in sectors where the product is a personal service. William Baumol observed that the essential “human” dimension of these services means that beyond a certain point, productivity cannot be increased without a deterioration in quality.  Indeed, Susan Himmelweit noted that measures of productivity in care may actually serve as indicators of poor quality.  For example, a low staff-to-child ratio in a nursery. Current attempts to automate adult social care-work, such as the fast-developing industry of care robots in Japan, provide a troubling portent of a myopic focus on productivity.  While robots may facilitate daily tasks, they cannot address the anxieties associated with age – and may increase loneliness.

Recognising care as infrastructure implies, then, a different approach. It becomes possible to think of care as part of a “foundational economy” defined, not by low productivity, but by a function: meeting core needs, and providing the “infrastructure of everyday life”.

As the Foundational Economy Collective has argued, conceptualising care work in terms of its purpose rather than its productivity level could encourage a different approach to industrial strategy. It would go beyond a “formal” objective – raising productivity – to a focus on a “substantive” one: securing the wellbeing and dignity of both care workers and care receivers.  Such an approach is at the heart of a recent report from UK progressive think tanks, Common Wealth and CLES, setting out a “people-centred industrial strategy for adult social care”.

A truly just transition

Finally, framing care as infrastructure has implications for the way we imagine and enact a “just transition” or Green New Deal. Care jobs are indeed “green jobs”, but for reasons more fundamental than the relatively low level of emissions with which they are associated.

Ecofeminist scholars and activists have drawn attention to the close links between the exploitation of reproductive labour and the exploitation of natural resources. This is not a matter of supposing some inherent affinity between women and nature, but rather, as Mary Mellor has highlighted, of recognising the structural relationship between women and the natural world. This is created by a common and connected experience of being treated as an “externality” in our current economic system – and thus being exploited.

The sphere of reproductive labour has always served as a dumping ground for the necessary tasks that come from these inevitable features of human existence. Unlike a growing proportion of work in tradable sectors, reproductive labour cannot be easily off-shored, digitalised or otherwise relocated. It therefore tends to be more embedded in a particular place, and more directly connected to a particular ecological context.

Changes to this ecological context, or deliberate attempts to change the way we relate to it, therefore tend to disproportionately impact those who perform reproductive labour. In the Global South increased droughts and crop failure can mean a greater labour burden on women to provide water and food. In the Global North attempts to reshape our relationship with the environment similarly risk disproportionately burdening women. As research commissioned by the UK Women’s Budget Group points out, a car-free city for instance would, without careful design of alternative travel options, imply a significant increase in the time and labour involved in shopping for a family.

A just Green New Deal, then, must also be a feminist one. This means addressing the devaluation and unequal distribution of reproductive labour – and especially care work – alongside the devaluation and exploitation of the natural world.

Defining care as infrastructure is an important reminder that although an ambitious Green New Deal will involve the creation of good green jobs of multiple kinds, it is ultimately about more than job creation. As Associate Professor of History at Purdue University,  Tithi Bhattacharya, has highlighted, despite the relentless focus of mainstream economic policymaking on growth and jobs, the vast majority are struggling not for wages, but the life that wages can afford. By putting care work – the work which makes and sustains our lives – at the core of infrastructure of the future, we can “demand that the labour of society be organised around jobs that enrich life rather than be harnessed in the irrational production of endless commodities.”

Conceiving of care in this broader, humanistic sense invites a concern with the qualitative dimension of economic life as much as the quantitative. It implies that when addressing care, a Green New Deal should not limit itself to job creation targets for care jobs as green jobs. Rather, its ambition should extend to transforming the nature of care services and care work, as part of a broader ambition to revalorise and redistribute reproductive labour, and build an economy directed towards the inseparable goals of caring for the earth, and caring for each other.

Isaac Stanley

Isaac is a PhD student in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics. He works on competing conceptions of value, success and solidarity. He was previously a Senior Researcher …

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