TWO SIDES OF A CARE DEFICIT
First, by the term “care” I refer to an emotional bond, usually mutual, between the caregiver and cared-for, a bond in which the caregiver feels responsible for others’ well-being and does mental, emotional, and physical work in the course of fulfilling that responsibility. Thus, care of a person implies care about him or her. I’ll focus here on care of the very young and old—care we still think of as “family care.”4
Most care requires work so personal, so involved with feeling, that we rarely imagine it to be work. But it would be naive to assume that giving care is completely “natural” or effortless. Care is a result of many small subtle acts, conscious or not.5 Consider a case of an elderly woman who becomes sick and despondent. A middle-aged daughter visits. She helps her mother acknowledge her illness ( It’s worth seeing a doctor”) and drives her to the doctor. She lifts her mother’s spirits through humor and conversation: she cheers her up. She hugs her mother, makes her chicken soup, deciphers the intricate insurance forms, pays the doctor, has extra talks with the doctor, and offers long-term care at home. These are some of the many ways to care. All the moments during the course of performing these acts when we are also trying to get into the task in the right spirit, with the appropriate feelings, can be considered the emotional work of care.6 Thus, we put more than nature into caring; we put time, feeling, acting, and thought into it.
As the worldwide income gap has widened over the last forty years between the developed and the underdeveloped countries (the oil-rich and the Pacific Rim countries aside), the need for care has expanded in much of the developing world, especially Africa and parts of South America. In this essay I focus on the United States, a country that has grown relatively richer during this period. Even so, xvithin this “core” of capitalism, the class gap has widened, and the care of many dependents seems to have eroded, too. Further research may uncover rough parallels between the American case and that of the countries of Western Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.7 Perhaps these models can sensitize us to the often hidden cultural lining beneath the politics of care in the United States as well as elsewhere in the developed world. With the exception of Japan, similar conditions seem to prevail in these other developed countries: a flight of capital to cheap labor pools in the developing world, the disappearance of well-paid industrial jobs and the rise of poorly paid service jobs, the weakening of labor unions, and the influx of migrant workers, all of which put a squeeze on average blue-collar workers. In addition, the economic recession of the 1980s and cost cutting due to global competition in the 1990s have led to stagnation in the middle class and decline among the poor.
As a social-class diride has deepened, change has occurred in the structure of family and work. Over the past forty years, birth rates have fallen, reducing the demand for childcare. In the United States, Canada, Japan, and the Netherlands, the average number of children bom to women was slightly above 3.0 in 1951 and below 1.9 in 1988.* At the same time, the proportion of elderly people rose, increasing the need for elder care/’ From 1950 to 1990 the proportion of older people (sixty-five and over) in the U. S. population rose from 8 to 12 percent.
In most of the advanced industrial world, the divorce rate has also risen and, with it, the importance of the single-parent family. Half of American marriages end in divorce.10 While we often imagine the single parent to be in a temporary phase before remarriage, a third of single mothers never remarry, and of the two-thirds who do remarry, over half divorce again. The divorce rate has thus increased the number of single-parent families, so that in 2000, 18 percent of children under age eighteen were living with single mothers and 4 percent with single fathers.11 Since the remarriage rate for women is lower than that for men (because men tend to remarry younger women), and since divorced women are far more likely to gain custody of children, most single parents are women. Divorced men provide much less care for their children than married men, and divorced women much
more. But since those divorced women also do paid work, the rising divorce rate creates the need Гог new care arrangements for their children.
Further, throughout the developed world with the exception of Japan, the proportion of all births that occur to unmarried women has risen. In the United States the rate rose from 5 percent in i960 to 23 percent in 1986 and 33 percent in 2000.12 Most unwed mothers cohabit with the fathers of their children, but the rate of breakup among cohabiting couples is higher than among married couples.14 So, the single-parent home is the major source of care for many children.
I’iie growing fragility of bonds between women and men has also weakened bonds between men and their children. After divorce, not only are fathers physically absent, but they reduce contact with their children and, over time, give them less money.11 A national study found that, three years after divorce, half of American divorced fathers had not visited their children during the entire previous year and thus did not perform the most basic form of care.15 After one year, half of divorced fathers were providing no child support at all, and most of the other half paid irregularly or less than the court-designated amounts.1*’ Wealthy divorced fathers were just as likely to be negligent as poor ones. So, taken together, recent trends in the class structure, certain demographic shifts, and family decline have shifted the population in need of care, radically reduced social supports on the home
front, and moved a good deal of the burden of care from men to women.