A NEW POLITICS OF CARE
Why, if care for our most vulnerable and frail is so important, so fundamental to our sense of righteousness, do we treat those who provide care so badly?
These words of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s John Kennedy are one of those simply put truths that make us squirm.
It’s not as if we are talking about a small section of society. One in eight UK adults care for older people and the long term sick. This number is expected to grow by 40% in the next twenty years. Significantly, most care falls to women to perform it, not just among those numbers of informal carers, but in the paid workforce: women form 89% of nurses, 75% of social workers, 82% of social care workers.
The refusal to recognise and properly value care work in all its forms feels like the product of a system that priorities the material over the relational. One that in historical terms has valued men’s work over women’s. Income denotes how a job is understood and the low paid status of most care workers sends out the signal that their work and the people they care for aren’t that important.
Some people defend the market as an oracle, wisely distributing rewards across the workforce, as if it is an untouchable authority handing down judgments from on high. But markets are formed by people and shaped by their values and priorities, so we cannot wash our hands of its injustices.
This is the context in which Madeleine Bunting has written Labours of Love: the Crisis of Care (Granta 2020). Her wish was to shine a light on the different components of care and repay some of the dignity we have deprived it. As she notes: care is the feminist issue; it profoundly shapes women’s lives at home and at work.
We struggle to place a value on the virtues of empathy, tenderness and dignity. They cannot readily be quantified, but when they are, these traits are not highly prized. The search of a leading job site in early 2020 showed that job descriptions specifying kindness paid only around half the average wage.
This hasn’t stopped the practice of care from being assimilated by business culture, with its consumerist language, artificially constructed targets and regular audits to make up for the lack of a profit motive. These often serve to distort the practice of care. At our most vulnerable and in need of the care of others, we do not feel like consumers, but human beings being carried by other human beings, living out a communal calling. The growth in bureaucracy, bemoaned in most professions, is especially damaging in care as it distracts from relationship forming that is the core of physical and social health.
Madeleine Bunting published her book in hardback on the cusp of the Covid pandemic, giving it unusual urgency and bite. Every responsible nation is likely to hold Inquiries into how the pandemic was handled. In the UK, the first surge of infections coursed through care homes because inadequate planning and protection was given to looking after older people and the low paid staff who care for them. It was the product of our cultural bias.
The routine of doorstep clapping for front line workers was well-intentioned, but the longer it went on, the more insufficient it felt. Many care workers, poorly paid, overworked and exposed to the virus, became resentful of a cheap ritual, some of whom were not socially distancing in the rest of their lives and thus exacerbating the risks.
Notwithstanding this friction, the post-pandemic landscape will look and feel very different. Major crises like this shake up national life and alter perspectives. A new politics of care is called for. In the UK, tackling the social care conundrum, where more older people are in need of care but the population is unwilling to pay for it, is an essential place to start. If we don’t, it will sharpen the divide between rich and poor, with the former enjoying much better care in later life.
A change in culture takes time, but it always has beginnings. A nation shaped by God’s character will surely place a greater value on caring for the bodies of others than ours does. It’s just as well the meek shall inherit the earth, because care workers certainly aren’t cornering their fair share of wealth today.
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