During the COVID pandemic, nurses, in-home health aides, and teachers all came to the forefront of our national attention. Although these “front-line heroes” played glorified roles in fighting the pandemic, their jobs are often culturally and economically undervalued especially given that they play such an important role in our society. This type of work is aptly named “care work” and includes paid and unpaid work to care for others. Child care providers, the role of caring for aging parents, and those who work in nursing homes are all care workers. Ensuring that care work is valued economically and that anyone who needs it can access care is vital for ensuring a just and green future.
To understand why care work today is undervalued and underpaid, we first need to look back to the mid-1800s. In areas where industrialization was starting to take off a family’s means of supporting themselves shifted. Where previously men and women worked together within the home to support themselves, men were leaving to work wage jobs in factories, and women were doing domestic work and caring for their children. As a result, the work that was valued economically was the work that was producing goods rather than the work of caring for children or domestic work. This difference was not universal, but it did change the notion of womanhood and work. Traditionally women’s work, what we would now classify as care work, was seen as natural and easy, not as work. Similarly, enslaved women during this time had the role of caring for their families in addition to their labor on a plantation, which was not seen as work but rather as effortless. So these roles of caring were economically devalued. During the New Deal when many workers received worker protections and minimum wages, domestic workers were purposely left out because they were jobs held predominantly by Black women. So these jobs are both socially and economically undervalued and under-protected.
Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the Economic Policy Institute, the median annual income for a childcare worker is just $18,503 and 1 in 7 childcare workers live in poverty, which is incomprehensible considering how important a role childcare plays in our society. Care worker jobs are predominantly held by women and disproportionately held by BIPOC and immigrants (Gunn-Wright). And the legacies of care work in the past continue today. So, ensuring that care work is valued is connected to the fight for racial, worker, and immigrant justice.
Care work also plays an important role in a decarbonized future. Most care jobs fall under the category of “green jobs” because they are low-carbon. Ensuring that the jobs pay family-supporting wages is essential for a just transition away from fossil fuels. Because care jobs are geographically dispersed, they are particularly accessible alternatives to jobs in the fossil fuel sector, but destigmatizing care work for men is an important step in achieving that just transition.
Because of their caregiving role, care workers are often critical to climate disaster response. “Home care workers are often the first responders in a climate emergency, and yet, we rarely get the recognition or resources we deserve for our labor and efforts,” June Barret, a domestic worker and organizer with Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and the Miami Workers Center said in a report by Feminist Green New Deal Coalition and Data for Progress.
On the flip side, making sure that care is accessible and affordable is necessary to ensure that everyone has access to new clean energy jobs. Jobs in the clean energy sector are predominantly white and male. For many women, particularly women of color, rural and low-income women, access to childcare is a barrier to participating in the workforce. During 2020, 83% of people with children under the age of four struggled to find affordable childcare according to the Center for American Progress. When a family can’t find childcare, that care work gets predominantly picked up by women. So, to ensure that the new clean energy jobs created by the Inflation Reduction Act are accessible, childcare needs to be more affordable.
Ensuring that childcare workers are fairly compensated is an important step toward a just transition away from fossil fuels to a decarbonized economy, not to mention the fact that care work is essential to our society and deserves to be valued.
Building narratives for a caring green economy. (2021, September 21).
DuBois, E. C., & Dumenil, L. (2005). Through Women's Eyes: An American history
with documents (2nd ed.). Bedford/St. Martin's.
Palladino, L., & Gunn-Wright, R. (2021, April). Care and Climate: Understanding the Policy Intersections.