Care as the Real Absence in the
Post-Industrial Welfare State
I teach in a graduate school of social work at a women’s college. Students in my classes are continually using an important dichotomy to turn discussions of the growing emphasis in social policy on work into debates about care. The emphasis on work glosses over the importance of care as students are wont to remind me, again and again. You would think I would learn that by now. They have a point. To emphasize one part of the dichotomy risks neglecting the other. Sending more and more women, especially mothers of young children into the workforce, puts at risk our ability to provide needed care. The growing emphasis in welfare reform on turning women into workers in the official economy risks removing needed caregivers from unofficial economy of the home and the community. Work requirements of welfare reform have the potential to undermine women’s caregiving roles and to devalue that activity even more than its already marginal status in the work-oriented capitalist societies of the western world.
Most of these students are quick to remind me that they are not suggesting that women by virtue of biology or socialization should be sequestered into caregiving roles because that is what women naturally or socially are best at doing. They support gender equity, including the right to work and earn as much money as men. Yet, they also believe that gender equity includes supporting caregiving as much as breadwinning. When we discuss the globalization of work-oriented welfare policy discourse, these students often see this as further evidence that caregiving is an important service to society that continues to be devalued even, or especially, in a post-feminist era of a growing female workforce.
It is true that welfare states in Europe have often done a better job than the social policy regime in the United States in recognizing the need to promote and support caregiving. And, as discussed in the last chapter, welfare reform in Europe is not singularly focused on getting single mothers with children into the workforce or into marriages. And cutbacks