The Care Equation

Our family care system is collapsing. When it worked well, it depended on the unpaid labor of women at home. Now that we've lost a great part of that labor force and only marginally replaced it, our society has no new philosophic consensus for an economic system that would support families as care providers. But there is a further element to the problem. As our care system has depended on the unpaid labor of women, it has depended on women's inequality, and it still does, although in new guises.

We need new support systems to enable families to provide good care for their members—on terms of equality for women. Such systems must be deliberately constructed—which means politically constructed. We have to decide as a society about shifts in responsibility for caretaking, shifts in resources, and shifts in costs. And these shifts have to occur in three major sectors of society: in government, in the workplace, and in families themselves.

We do not lack ideas; designs for new care systems are thick on the ground. But we have an ideological block against thinking about such designs in the first place. Deep in American political culture lies a powerful belief in private systems of social organization—belief in the private market as the best means of organizing the economy, belief in the private family as the best means of organizing care and social order. But now most families cannot do all their care work themselves, nor do they have enough money to buy the care they cannot provide. So we are a society without enough care—at all income levels—and we are obviously suffering because of it.

This is where liberals come in. Dealing with the collapsing care system in any realistic way means moving the ideological boundary line between what we consider properly private and properly public business. Moving that line—widening the scope of public responsibility and broadening the going conception of public business—has been the historical role of American liberals. But the problem is that liberals—I mean mainstream liberals in policy-forming, decisionmaking places—are in serious confusion about these issues.

Embracing the idea that women's equal rights should extend into the workplace, liberals have energetically challenged old systems of discrimination. But for women to receive equal treatment, income, status, and authority at work, they have to follow established male employment models—which generally do not take families and care into account. And this is where liberal thinking goes blank. Where do children fit into this picture? Who takes care of them and pays for their care? Conservatives invoke family values, meaning a traditional division of labor in the home. Liberals call for expanding subsidized day care, but they have not squarely confronted the problem conservatives raise of the need for more family time and more parental time with children. Nor have liberals, any more than tradition-bound conservatives, begun to deal seriously with the connections between care and gender equality. The idea of constructing a blend of publicly financed child care, shared parental responsibility, and—crucially—family-focused, equality-focused work time is still in its political infancy.

But the problem is at least on the table. It broke into national consciousness less through deliberate policy initiatives than in a series of public dramas during the first Clinton administration, when liberals whom Clinton brought with him into office confronted the care and equality problem without recognizing its inherent conflicts and explosive potential. Most significant and most confusing was the Zoe Baird affair, the crisis greeting Bill Clinton on the first day of his presidency in 1993.

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I can still see Zoe Baird leaning toward the microphone before the Senate Judiciary Committee, eyes puffy, mouth tight, explaining again and again why she had hired illegal aliens as nanny and chauffeur while she worked in the top managerial ranks of the Aetna insurance company, why she had not paid Social Security taxes on them—and why this should not bar her appointment to the office of attorney general.

A lawyer and the mother of a small child, she was in several ways typical of professional women in high-pressure, formerly all-male workplaces. To operate as equals in such environments, these women must put in long, often unpredictable hours. Unless they can rely on househusbands, who are rare, or nearby at-home relatives, who are almost as rare, they frequently need full-time, live-in help to care for their children. Many, finding their choice of employees limited or relying on personal references for reliable caregivers, turn, as Baird did, to the informal network of undocumented immigrant labor. They thus become lawbreakers—albeit of laws that are so widely broken that they are generally unenforced. Or they can compromise their own work hours on a mommy track—in which case they do not advance along with their male peers, and they do not become candidates for attorney general.

Bill Clinton wanted the attorney general to be a woman; he wanted a Cabinet that "looked like America." With his wife Hillary, he had made a commitment to break the all-male hold on the most senior cabinet jobs—the four power positions. He wanted to be a president known for advancing the equality of women.

Here was the collision of care and equality in the making. Not all likely women candidates might have fallen afoul of the immigration and Social Security laws, but many would—the top two did, as it turned out. And the country could not have an identified lawbreaker as its top law enforcer.

In part, the Baird crisis occurred because the intricate linkage of care and equality was not politically visible. Even Bill Clinton, the most astute of politicians, didn't see it. He knew of Baird's nanny problem but saw it as a commonplace situation that Baird was in the process of straightening out (she was, at the time, seeking green cards for her employees and paying the back taxes). Senator Joseph Biden, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, did anticipate danger. He foresaw a public furor erupting at the news of a lawyer earning $500,000 a year hiring illegal help; it looked like a case of the rich person choosing not to pay decent wages and benefits. That is, he saw class conflict.

What neither man could see, because it wasn't there, was a liberal frame for the problem in front of them. They had no idea that when Zoe Baird walked into the Senate committee room, she carried with her a set of layered and compacted conflicts. They did not grasp that they were watching an increasingly fragile caretaking structure moving toward collapse. They did not see a massive collision occurring between the country's need for caretaking and the standing American promise of equality.


The movement of women toward equality through paid work was undermining the country's caretaking. But women's continued responsibility for caretaking was, at the same time, undermining their movement toward equality. Statistics tell the familiar story: women's wages lower than men's; women clustered in the lower levels of most workplaces; top corporate management 95 percent male; women in only 10 to 15 percent of the top positions in the professions, most on mommy tracks or in "women's fields"; and even with recent gains, very few women in the Congress or in governorships.

Bill and Hillary Clinton and their enthusiastic backers in women's rights organizations had these statistics in mind in their determination to appoint a significant number of women to the Cabinet and other official positions. But here a plague of confusions surrounding the very concept of women's equality came into play.

The first, set deeply in American history and in mainstream liberal principle, is that there is no unambiguous concept of women's equality, as such. The principle to be honored and protected politically is individual equality. If women were excluded from medical schools, law firms, or police forces, and if political parties were not backing them for stepping-stone offices that led to governorships or to Congress, the principle being offended was individual equality. Women were not being judged on individual merit; they were being judged on the basis of stereotypical ideas about the nature of women as a sex. When women's advocates in the 1960s raised this argument in clear terms, the most egregious barriers to women in the workplace and in public life began to fall. The powerful idea of fairness to the individual was the lever that made the difference.

Bill Clinton, however, in promoting his female appointees, was not entirely protected by the principle of individual equality. In proclaiming that he would significantly extend the presence of women in important federal offices, he was safely within the bounds of individual rights as long as he could maintain that their absence in previous years was due to a disregard for individual merit. But he could do that only if his appointments were based on merit and not on sex. If he appeared to be filling quotas—this many women, that many minorities—he was standing on ground other than that sanctified by American tradition, and he would be departing from the strongly defended liberal tradition of individual rights.

This is just what he appeared to be doing when at first he considered attorney general candidates with records of involvement in women's issues. Brooksley Born, for example, a Washington lawyer active in women's affairs, was enthusiastically backed by women's organizations. But Bill Clinton, accused of paying off interest groups rather than seeking merit, ruled Born out and counter-criticized the women's groups as "bean counters."

Zoe Baird then became the front-runner precisely because she had had no involvement with women's issues. Supposedly she was chosen not as a representative of women, as such, but as a meritorious professional. But the problem here was that Baird's credentials, while solid, were not overwhelmingly impressive compared with potential male candidates. She was, in fact, chosen because she was a woman.

Clinton, therefore, while trying to stay on the safe side of the merit principle, ended up outside it but without openly justifying such a move. To do so, he would have had to rely on ideas about equality and equal rights that the liberal mainstream had not firmly accepted—and that conservatives adamantly rejected. He would have had to argue that it was important to bring women—as women—into important government positions because men in office had long ignored the varied ideas, perspectives, and judgments that women's experience of life produced.

Women's physical vulnerability to rape and domestic violence, for example, was a problem that an all-male justice system had always treated as far less serious than it actually was. But by 1992 the views of women lawyers and judges had contributed significantly to needed change in laws on violence against women. In other arenas similar changes were occurring: women doctors were bringing women's health issues to public notice, and women in the labor movement were drawing attention to female workplaces. Throughout the country, women's voices were bringing different, vital, and previously unheard messages to public attention. An argument that the President should act deliberately to include such voices in his Cabinet—that he should appoint women, as women—could rest on this record.

But Bill Clinton could not make such an argument without departing from established liberal thought and adopting what was still an outsider position—ideas pressed by feminists and racial minorities, groups that had not been part of the national political conversation historically. Further, he would have been teetering dangerously on the edge of a position with a worrisome downside.

In the past, it was precisely group identification that had worked against women, blacks, Asians, Jews, Catholics, and other minorities, and it was the persistent claim to individual rights that had protected them. Therefore, liberals, as champions of the disadvantaged, hesitated to tinker with the claims of the individual and had not developed a solid, widely accepted stand on the idea of group representation in government.

Thus Bill Clinton was on weak ground with his attorney general candidate even without the nanny problem. But the nanny problem—which Senator Biden saw as a matter of class and Bill Clinton didn't see at all—is at the heart of the care and equality problem. Breaking the law to find child care, while unacceptable in a public servant, is an act that dramatizes the pressures that squeeze women out of equally shared authority throughout the society, and these are pressures that operate—although in highly varied forms—at all income levels.


The equality problem goes far beyond professional women like Baird. Most women earning middle-range incomes cannot afford as much support as their families need, and they compensate by racing between job and home to provide as much family care as possible themselves, often working part-time or flex-time. But workers who limit their time on the job, by whatever arrangement, tend to remain at the lower levels of their occupations. And since women are mainly the ones doing this, their choices—which are entirely reasonable and humane—are reinforcing the old pattern of women's work ghettos.

Women in low-wage jobs are worse off, since most simply cannot pay for family care. They often rely on relatives, friends, and neighbors for patchwork care systems that are fragile at best, creating risks of poor care for children and elders, and off-and-on employment records for the women responsible for them. Except where meager public subsidies are available, the frequent result is entrapment of all family members in a downward economic spiral that makes the promise of equal opportunity a cruel joke.

Sadly, care workers themselves generally fall into this last category. Desperate need on the part of families at all income levels creates a huge market demand for care. But as most people who need day or elder care have limited resources to pay for it, caretaking wage levels remain low, and the supply of care workers depends on people who have no choice but to take low-paid jobs. As a result, we are headed toward hardening inequality in the creation of a new, low-wage, servant class that will do our caretaking for us.

Further, as the Zoe Baird story illustrates, a main source of low-wage service labor is immigration—legal and illegal and largely Hispanic. Depending on these workers, we create not just a servant class, but one made up of ethnic minorities who, in large part, do not have the power—and often not even voting rights—to improve their employment conditions politically.

And here is yet another layer of complication in this long story. In a more recent nanny affair—the trial of the au pair Louise Woodward for the death of a baby in her care—the media's stories were filled with controversy about working mothers. In this case, the mother was a doctor with only a part-time practice. Nonetheless, many people blamed her, not the au pair, for the baby's death, reflecting the still-strong conviction that women who can afford to stay home should not be at work in the first place; they should be at home taking care of their families.

Bolstering this belief is the enduring power of the idea that women have a natural capacity for the care of children and others, and that these natural gifts make it right, not simply convenient, for the woman of the family to provide or oversee its care. Whether this idea stems from moral conviction, personal observation, or emotional longing for the securities of a simpler time, it clouds recognition of the fact that most American women are not at home and are not going home—at least on the old terms.

In a final twist, the idea of women's natural caretaking qualities has another powerful effect, which was also at play in the Zoe Baird affair. Some people feel that if women are good at the emotional work of caring for others, they are not good at work that depends on disciplined rationality and toughness—like law.

Missing in this equality-blocking box of stereotypes, however, is the idea that someone who has done caretaking, who understands its demands, who knows its importance, and who recognizes a caretaking crisis when she sees it would be a highly valuable decisionmaker in government or the private sector.

The problem is that as a society we still accept a whole series of connected dichotomies: men/women; tough/soft; reason/emotion; public life/private life. Soft, emotional women are supposed to take care of private life. Tough, rational men are supposed to manage the demanding, dangerous world. In this general picture, concern about care belongs on the feminine, private side of the boundary.

Making care a legitimate public issue, a mixed public-private responsibility, requires dissolving the dichotomies. This is why including women, as women, in public decisionmaking is important. For one thing, women's presence and visibility in public life weakens the hold of dichotomous thinking. And women have, in fact, furthered this disruption by insisting on putting care high on the public agenda. Former Representative Patricia Schroeder introduced a family and medical leave bill in 1985 and fought for it until it was finally passed in 1993. Child care, health care, and education—the gender gap issues—are consistently pushed by women in Congress, by women governors, by women activists. And women do this not because they are programmed by nature to be concerned about "soft" issues but because they so often have direct personal responsibility for care, which gives them a much-needed perspective on the issue that has been missing from national life.

This is not to say that all women think alike on social issues. Conservative women are as adamant as conservative men in resisting broadened public responsibility for work and family problems and caretaking generally. But that is not a reason for liberals to be squeamish about deliberately adding women's experience to the public debate and making the logic of this position clear.

In 1998, with the second Clinton administration underway, issues of family care have intruded more persistently into politics. Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign was centered on family issues; Hillary Clinton published a book about them—It Takes a Village. The President held a White House corporate-citizenship conference to encourage family-friendly policies in the workplace, and called for expanding the reach of the Family and Medical Leave Act. He returned to this knot of issues in a 1997 White House conference focused solely on child care. And he has followed up with provisions for expanded federal child care support in his projected budget for 1999.

But neither the Clintons nor congressional liberals nor mainstream liberals elsewhere have come anywhere near making the necessary linkage between care and equality. And that linkage is crucial. Neither of these great issues can be resolved alone.


So where do we go from here? Many liberals now are—rightly—calling for new and serious family programs, as Stanley Greenberg and Theda Skocpol have done in this magazine and elsewhere. But we must set about inventing a new liberal family politics based squarely on the twin principles of care and equality. It must be a politics that goes beyond election strategies; it requires a firm, clear philosophy at its base. What follows is a sketch of four premises for such a politics.

Taking care seriously. This means nothing less than asserting a social responsibility for care as a major national value. Liberal arguments have to make clear how tragically mistaken conservatives are to rely on the private market as an adequate distributor of resources for family care. But liberals must also broaden their own conception of the family care crisis—from a focus on low-income families to all families; from a focus on more and better services to the need for more family time as well; from a focus on the responsibility of government to assume more family care costs to the parallel responsibility of corporations and employers to do so. To take these goals seriously means moving beyond rhetoric and marginal programs to large-scale shifts in the use of the country's resources.

Embracing the family. Liberals as protectors of individual rights, which sometimes conflict with family claims, have had difficulty staking out a clear pro-family ground. As a result, conservatives have appropriated the realm of "family values" and have defined these values as individual sexual morality and traditional male/female roles and relations. They also have positioned liberals as corrupters of morality and destroyers of families. Liberals need to contest the conservative position with enthusiastic support for all families—traditional and nontraditional—that provide care for their members.

Adding equality. Equality for women must include equal opportunity, which means significant changes in the economics of caretaking. We need to shift to the society at large a substantial portion of the caretaking costs now carried by unpaid or poorly paid women. For liberals this means the absorption of some costs by employers and taxpayers and an equal division of unpaid labor at home between women and men.

Equality also means full participation in the policymaking, rule-making, and decisionmaking that shape the way the society works. Deeply engrained habits and convictions that tend to identify women with private roles and to envision authority as properly masculine stand in the way of this goal. The liberal task is to challenge and dislodge equality-defeating attitudes.

Opening new political channels. A new liberal politics of family care requires a new mode of political thinking. In the face of social trouble, Americans tend to search for abuses of power, enemies, or wrongdoers and devise solutions limited to removing or controlling particular villains (abusive mothers, neglectful fathers, murderous au pairs, and would-be Cabinet members who fail to pay nanny taxes, for example).

To perceive the full range of reasons for our care crisis and to construct new solutions, we need to broaden the scope of public responsibility. We need to enlarge the circle of decisionmaking and debate to include all of the constituencies involved in the care and equality issue: families at all income levels, paid and unpaid caregivers, women in all kinds of workplaces, employers in all kinds of workplaces, teachers, family court judges, health care providers, service workers' unions. We must recognize that our most serious troubles are the work not of removable wrongdoers but of conflicts in interest and imbalances of power that require continuous negotiation.

Liberals have to deliver the stark message that our present systems cannot provide the care we need. We can and should no longer count on the unpaid labor of women at home as the major source of the country's caretaking. And we also cannot count on the private market to replace that lost labor. We must deliberately and politically construct a new capital base for care.

The new base will have to be a public/private collaboration, which could take a variety of forms. For example, the conservative economist Edmund Phelps proposes graduated tax subsidies for employers of low-wage workers to guarantee a minimum family income for all working Americans. A new system should certainly include an expansion of employer-supported on-site day care. It should also include new work structures in all kinds of workplaces, from factories to law firms, deliberately building in time for families—without penalizing workers who choose to take family time. There should be supports for unionizing care workers to raise their status and income. The Family and Medical Leave Act should be expanded to cover more workers and to finance paid leaves. New levels of subsidy for day care and health care are clearly needed.

Other advanced industrial countries offer models for some parts of the problem. On family and medical leave, for example, most European countries mandate at least partial wage replacement for leave time ranging from three to nine months for illness or births. The replacement amounts vary from about 55 percent to 90 percent of average wages and are usually funded by some combination of employee and employer insurance plans. The same countries generally provide automatic child allowances for all families at all income levels. Several subsidize child care from infancy to age three, offer free full-day preschools for three- to five-year-olds, and provide universal health care and housing allowances.

The absolutely crucial precondition for a range of new care and equality policies is a breakthrough in the old beliefs about the sufficiency of private systems to support our social needs and values. Instigating that conversation is the present liberal task.

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