Carework refers, simply, to the work of caring for others, including unpaid care for family members and friends, as well as paid care for others. Caring work includes taking care of children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled, as well as doing domestic work such as cleaning and cooking. As reproductive labor, carework is necessary to the continuation of every society. By deploying the term ‘‘carework,’’ scholars and advocates emphasize the importance of recognizing that care is not simply a natural and uncomplicated response to those in need, but actually hard physical, mental, and emotional work, which is often unequally distributed through society (Meyer 2000). Because care tends to be economically devalued, many scholars who study carework emphasize the skill required for care, and the importance of valuing care.
The scholarship on carework addresses several key issues. Understanding the balance in care provision among families, states, and markets is a central concern. There are significant issues about the relationship between family provision of care and market provision of care (paid versus unpaid care). The state plays its own role, in terms of providing care, supporting care, and encouraging care. Many carework scholars call for the state to play a larger role in care provision, both to eliminate gendered expectations for care provision within families and to subsidize provision due to the expense of and demand for high quality care. These issues of family, state, and market have played out within the feminist welfare state literature for decades, and have become more integrated with carework scholarship that focuses more specifically on the experiences of the provision of care (Meyer 2000; Daly 2001).
Scholarship on carework also highlights the tensions between paid versus unpaid care. The commodification of care is viewed with significant suspicion, in part due to concerns that paid care provides less emotional nurturing. Indeed, the rationalization of carework can lead to a greater respect and reward by making visible the skills and hard work involved in carework. Yet the emotional and nurturing aspects of carework are important both to the care recipient and to paid and unpaid careworkers (Foner 1994). For paid carework, a focus on efficiency and billable hours may have extremely detrimental effects. This tension simply exists because society devalues the worth of nurturance and love. Although the commodification of care changes the nature of care, the result need not be a loss in quality. While unpaid family care may be of very high quality, elder abuse and child abuse happen within families as well as in paid care settings, and professionals can at times provide better care, particularly for the disabled and sick. Paid care should also not be seen as replacing unpaid care; unpaid care often continues alongside paid care. Paid and unpaid caregivers may work together, and may need to negotiate successful strategies for sharing care (Abel & Nelson 1990; Ungerson 1997).
Another tension exists between care quality and costs for care. Care improves significantly with lower ratios of careworkers to recipients. For example, a person caring for two parents with dementia may face greater stress than a person caring for only one parent. Similarly, a nursing home center with a 3 : 1 ratio of nurses to care recipients will allow higher quality care than one with a 10 : 1 ratio of nurses to care recipients. Yet, costs increase when care is provided in this manner. As a result, lower quality of care is often necessary, which may create higher levels of burnout for careworkers as well as poor outcomes for care recipients. Yet, most families simply do not have the time or money to provide what may be the highest quality care, and must make difficult choices.
Care may also be experienced by unpaid careworkers as both a burden and a right. Unpaid carework takes place in a larger con text, which includes enduring ideologies about the gendered nature of carework, unstable social support for care, and limited market based options for care (Meyer 2000; Daly 2001). Many unpaid careworkers, due to a lack of options, must juggle work, care, and other responsibilities, and may feel pushed into providing care. Yet, the provision of care can also be seen as a right. Those with the least resources and autonomy (e.g., lesbian or gay partners, immigrant domestic workers, or women under US welfare reform) do not have the same ability to choose care; when their family members need care, they may be relatively powerless to help. The social context plays an important role in structuring and limiting choices about care. Care is a profound and central experience in many people’s lives; it is critical to analyze the experience of care with more subtlety, recognizing that care may be empowering as well as oppressive – and may be both at the same time.
Finally, as all of these points suggest, in equalities provide a key approach for analyzing carework. Carework clearly reinforces gender inequality, but also inequalities of race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, ability, and nation. For example, in the United States, race and gender systems have historically devalued the care racial and ethnic minority women provide for their own families, while appropriating this care for white families. At its most basic, research on carework investigates differences in carework based on social location, and seeks to show how different social locations are linked through care provision.
- Abel, E. K. & Nelson, M. K. (1990) Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women’s Lives. State University of New York Press, Albany.
- Cancian, F. & Oliker, S. (2000) Gender and Caring. Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Daly, M. (Ed.) (2001) Carework: The Quest for Security. International Labor Office, Geneva.
- Folbre, N. (2001) The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values. New Press, New York.
- Foner, N. (1994) The Caregiving Dilemma: Work in the American Nursing Home. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Meyer, M. H. (Ed.) (2000) Carework: Gender, Class, and the Welfare State. Routledge, New York.
- Ungerson, C. (1997) Social Politics and the Commodification of Care. Social Politics 4(3): 362 81.