How can we better value the different roles people play, including caregiving

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How can we better value the different roles people play, including caregiving?

by Beverley Smith, Canada

When we talk of social protection we are aiming to get rid of poverty and homelessness. The goal is the same from nearly all theorists but the means differ. One approach is to nudge the poor by shaming them from laziness .The means is to keep them suffering so they have to go get a job. Pull themselves up by the bootstraps.  Low welfare or unemployment payments are part of that view. Problem – some people are ill, frail elderly, handicapped, too young, or unskilled so not everyone can today get a job even if shamed for not having one.

So plan B, how to help those who need more than penalty? Where is the carrot not just the stick? And so that solution is to help them out of their rut, with courses, more education, jobs for those who have some limitations so they can at least have the dignity of earning, producing, contributing.  Problem- some jobs created in this way don’t pay much and employers cannot be guaranteed to offer decent wages and benefits. You get the working poor, who are busy long hours but have little money to pay bills with.

 So plan C, government helps with laws such as minimum wage, maximum working hours, required vacations.  And government sets up some programs for that much smaller group now that needs help.  Problem – employers till sneakily get around the laws, offering part-time jobs at lower pay, and  no benefits or pension because only full time jobs have to meet the rules. Merchants charge whatever the market will bear and housing costs skyrocket. Many people end up having to work two jobs just to pay the rent.  So despite labor laws and the category of the very sick or frail or young who can’t earn, there are still people who need help for they are in dire poverty. Poverty is linked to inadequate shelter, poor nutrition and health costs. Poverty is often linked to despair, violence and criminal activity as the poor try to get out of their dilemma.

So plan D, the social safety net looks not at the bailout charity angle but at something else.  If there will always be some people who can’t do a paid job today (the young, sick, handicapped, and frail elderly) they are with us. They grow up and earn later, or they get healed and earn later or they die, but for some period of time they are with us, unable to earn.  And there is that other glitch- someone has to take care of them.  And what about the caregiver then? If we are stuck with the non-earners, who need someone to feed or nurse them, we are also stuck with the care sector of people who do that role.  These two sectors of the economy are not noticed well when we look at ‘job’ creation’. Ironically too there is a time we are each of us not in that job category – especially in our youth but also occasionally in illness and old age. The ‘care’ group is not the other. It is us or was us and may be us.  We are stuck with that sector. So what about it?

We have a choice when we write ‘social protection’ laws then, and one option is to get everybody away from the care role who can get away, and hire people to do it instead.  Under plan E  all adults in society who are able physically and mentally to do paid work, do it.  Nobody just ‘gives’ care as a caregiver.  All care is paid care by some ‘job creation ‘program of paid 3rd parties to tend the young, sick, handicapped, or frail elderly.  Would that be the ideal then of social protection via job creation? The problem is first that that answer is hugely costly.  Paying all people even minimum wage would break the state budget. If you had to hire a professional to change every diaper, take every temperature during an illness and to feed every sip of drink to the handicapped, tax rates would soar into government bankruptcy to fund all the paid care.  Even if we put all the people needing care into large institutional settings to keep costs down, with one paid caregiver to twenty clients, that may become affordable but it would present one other glitch.

It turns out the people who need care are not just widgets.  They come with the full range of aptitudes and emotions. If toddlers are ignored they may get injured. If  pre-teens are warehoused they may get bored and turn to amusements like drugs or drinking or sex or crime for kicks.  If seniors are warehoused they may become depressed and need a lot of costly medical care.  So the efficient answer of  everybody hire a paid caregiver may sound wildly successful as job creation,  but it would wreak havoc with the mental health of  a nation.

So we get plan F, a quite different answer. Not ‘job creation’ as the solution to social protection but job redefinition.  In a way it is like opening your eyes to the jobs already being done, a widening of the circle.  Under this plan we notice that those who want paid jobs should get all the help they need- education, training, labor law protection, benefits, pensions and no hurdles to keep them back due to gender, race, or other human rights protected areas.  But for those who need care we’d admit they exist, and we’d admit those who tend them exist. Under plan F there is a recognition that whoever is providing care is already at a job.  In this way we can hire a paid caregiver if that person prefers one, or we can let a family member or friend be that caregiver, as the care-receiver wants.  And the role of government is to recognize that care itself is work, whoever does it and to fund the care in with dignity. The money ”flows with’ whoever needs the care.

This is the win-win-win answer.  Those who want paid jobs have them and decent jobs, for the hours they want them. Those who want to do care roles full time can, and get some funding for that role because it is still cheaper than putting them into costly professional level care. And those who want to do some paid work and some care roles can do that too – with financial recognition for both roles.

The legal cases in history that have moved us redefined things. The civil rights movement redefined ‘person’ to not have a color to it.  The voting shifts and equal pay legislation redefined person to not have a gender to it.  And the next big shift is to redefine ‘work’ to not have a place to it.  It is work to take care of a child, regardless of where the child is or who is tending the child.  The real answer to ‘social protection’ is to make sure the paid worker is not poor, and that the caregiver is not poor.

When we enlarge our definition of work, labor force, productivity and GDP to notice the care roles we have always with us- we remove the blinders we had about what makes an economy tick.  It is not a movement against paid labor or against men or against women who do paid work outside the home. It is a movement for all those things, and for adding the care role to the list of ‘work’ done in the nation. This historic 3rd wave of human rights then is groundbreaking because it is not against what progress we already made. It just adds to it.  We saw a line that kept some out, ignored or scorned, left cold and thin. But we had the grace to offer peace. We drew a circle that let all in.

Beverley Smith is a Canadian activist for women’s and children’s rights. She has headed a national charity, taken part in marches, petitions, spoken to members of parliament and at parliamentary budget hearings, before conferences and has made formal complaints at the human rights commission and the UN.  She has run for parliament and has applied for and been denied a Supreme court reference.

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