Caring in the City

Ending the exploitation of urban care workers requires radically democratic alternatives that go beyond the rhetoric of “work-life balance.”

If I had a dollar, or maybe only a dime, for every word that has been penned about solutions for “balancing work and family,” my personal wealth would be approaching that of Alice Walton. As with many dilemmas central to capitalism, the policy solutions offered over the past thirty years appear sensible; yet, like the carousel’s brass ring, they remain ever beyond our grasp.

The Nordic welfare states appeared for a while to provide a shining example of family-friendly capitalism. There is no doubt that this model benefited working-class women and single mothers.

Yet while appreciating the high-quality childcare, paid parental leave, and other policies that facilitated mothers’ engagement in paid labor, feminist critics argued that these measures tended to aggravate occupational segregation along gender lines, limit women’s employment in the private sector, and reproduce the gender division of labor in the household. This held true even in Sweden, where additional months of parental leave were offered if taken by men.

Certainly, the welfare state is worth defending against the neoliberal austerity policies now increasingly in force. But even at their height, Nordic welfare states never came close to truly socializing the labor of care — especially when we think beyond childrearing to the many kinds of care that people need over their lifetimes. Direct care, and allied labors like shopping, cooking, and cleaning, remain the private responsibility of households and predominantly of the women within them.

We can debate the levels of change that have occurred in men’s participation in domestic labor, but even the most democratized two-income nuclear family household cannot meet its care responsibilities alone without overworking its own members or exploiting low-paid workers in the care and service industries.

Many households solve the problem of squabbling over who will clean the bathroom by hiring other women to do household work. This “solution” rests on the exploitation of immigrant labor — much of it informal and undocumented, whether it involves Eastern European women cleaning homes in Germany or Latina nannies in Los Angeles. Few families in the US could afford nannies, home care workers, or home health aides if the workers were making a real living wage or even the fifteen dollars an hour that fast-food workers are fighting for.

Most households cannot afford to hire even low-paid domestic workers, so they balance caring and waged work by working part-time, working shift-work, or creating informal arrangements with family and neighbors. Or they rely on other low-waged workers and cheap services — understaffed, low-quality, for-profit chain childcare centers and overburdened family daycare providers.

When mothers migrate to work as caregivers, leaving their families behind, emotional nurturing becomes another extractive industry in which resources are transferred from the Global South to the Global North.

We all might agree that children can be well taken care of by people other than their parents. But should severing relationships with one’s children or parents be the price paid for economic survival? Caring for others is a fundamental human activity; choice with regard to how we give care to the people we love is an important human right — as important as the right to be cared for.

Exploitation of paid and unpaid labor, distress and overwork, fears about old age, worries about our kids, and intimacy strained by the burdens of caregiving pervade our lives. The social-democratic welfare states achieved brief and unique victories against capital’s drive to force the costs of reproducing the labor force onto workers themselves. The privatization of the humanly necessary work of care is endemic, despite the fact that capital needs healthy workers to exploit.

We need to envision radically democratic alternatives that go beyond helping households shoulder what are understood to be their care responsibilities. To truly socialize the costs of care will require a monumental shift away from capital’s control of our social wealth. As we imagine what this might look like, we can draw on decades of socialist feminist thinking.

Beyond Free Daycare

In thinking about alternatives to the nuclear family household as the primary institution for sustaining care, socialist feminists have envisioned collective forms of living in which a broader set of people can care for each other, meet our everyday physical needs, raise our children, and support our elderly friends and relatives.

Socialist feminists have also argued for degendering care work. These ideals are linked. So long as care is a woman’s responsibility, it will remain devalued. And so long as it is a private responsibility, it will remain gendered.

Collective care encourages a deeper capacity for empathy and social identification beyond the narrow sphere of one’s immediate relatives. For socialist feminists, enlarging relational life beyond the small circles defined by kinship is an essential part of any liberatory project.

From nineteenth-century French revolutionary Jeanne Deroin to Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai to “second-wave” feminists Sheila Rowbotham, Hilary Wainwright, and Lynne Segal, many socialist feminists have engaged, along with radicals from other revolutionary traditions, in experiments in cooperative work and communal living.

Partly because of where they live and work, but also because of the many working-class women’s movements that have flourished in cities, socialist feminists have been particularly interested in transforming the urban environment.

Cities are often sites of cultural and political radicalism. With its spaces of anonymity, the city has been a place of refuge from bourgeois conformity and has nurtured subcultures from which emerged new identities and social movements. The density of the built environment and the mixture of residential and commercial spaces in many urban neighborhoods provide a more supportive economic and social environment for women both as wage earners and as unpaid caregivers.

Out of necessity, women in working-class neighborhoods have created cross-household networks through which they share caring labor. These caregiving networks in turn have formed the social base for women’s organizing around a variety of issues relevant to their responsibility for sustaining households and families: tenants’ rights, consumer issues, welfare policy, environmental justice, and community-based healthcare, to name a few.

Some of these movements are rooted in a defense of and demand for the expansion of public space; for example, safe streets, parks, and after-school recreation programs. In this sense, working-class women have long recognized their “right to the city” and struggled to have access to the wealth and resources that flow within it.

Since the early twentieth century, feminist urban planners, architects, and academics have challenged urban policies that assume male breadwinners and privatized care work. They have envisioned new kinds of built environments that offer collective possibilities for care. In a groundbreaking article published in 1980, Dolores Hayden described public housing projects that incorporated childcare centers, laundries, dining rooms, and play spaces in order to meet the needs of households headed by working single mothers.

Public housing in the US might have developed along these lines. Instead, after a long period of disinvestment, it is now being demolished in many cities, forcing more poor families to rely on Section 8 vouchers and the private housing market, trapping them in an environment that inhibits rather than encourages collectivized space.

Racialized “culture of poverty” discourses have been used to justify the shifts. These discourses are embedded in neoliberal urban policies that offer “choice” and “opportunity” as a rationale for gentrification, dispersion, and the unraveling of community ties and networks built up over generations. Along with welfare reform, housing policies of accumulation by dispossession have posed serious challenges to the women-led social justice movements.

The Rebuilt Environment

Ironically, while public housing came under attack, affluent middle-class pioneers were organizing to create a new kind of built environment: cohousing projects that encourage caring communities.

In any collective project, there is a tension between the particular needs of individuals and the demands of group life. Cohousing seeks to manage this tension by balancing private and communal space so that residents can participate in community life at different levels of intensity. Cohousing combines individual living units with a large, comfortable common house that can accommodate the whole community for meals and social gatherings.

The common space can include, in addition to a dining room and kitchen, a children’s space, a library, recreation room, meeting rooms, a workshop, an office, shared laundry facilities, and guest accommodations (allowing individual units to remain relatively small while community members can still accommodate visitors).

Cohousing offers promise as a strategy for socializing care, because adults share caregiving in reciprocal relationships among an extensive group of people. In cohousing communities, adults can participate in childrearing without necessarily producing their own child, and share the burdens and pleasures of caring for one another. Taking the sting out of living single, cohousing creates a ground for real freedom about coupling up.

Cohousing members are expected to share responsibilities for organizing collective life, serve on committees, and participate in decision-making. They are also expected to participate in community meals, although how this is organized, the frequency of the gatherings, and the frequency of expected participation varies across cohousing communities.

Most cohousing projects in the US have been built on vacant land, but some have been developed in urban areas by retrofitting older buildings; for example, Swan’s Market in San Francisco, which was converted into mixed-use retail and cohousing.

The inclusion of rental housing along with owner-occupied units has emerged as a strategy for bringing single parents and other moderate- and low-income individuals and families into cohousing. In 2013, the City of Sebastopol, California built the first all-rental cohousing project for low-income seniors and families. The non-profit developer, Satellite Affordable Housing Associates, funded a community organizer who worked for two years with tenants as they developed their community guidelines and norms and their consensus decision-making skills.

Caring Communities

Decisions about the built environment are some of many that shape possibilities for socializing care. Organizing care in more collective and social, rather than individual and private, ways inevitably raises concerns about power, privilege, and oppressive group control. Who will set the rules? What kind of choices will we have about how to care and about who will care? What does it mean to make care work a public good? One of the most complex of these important questions is the role of democracy, community, and the state.

Public goods can be produced, administered, and delivered in ways that are bureaucratic or participatory, hierarchical or accessible, centralized or localized. As the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued, our dispositions are developed through practice, through enactment, so that ways of imagining ourselves in relation to others become deeply embedded in our identities and in our habits.

When public goods are produced and administered within institutions that involve shared governance and decision-making, they create a social environment within which people develop the dispositions that are fundamental to social solidarity. Local control will encourage a variety of forms for these institutions so that people can experiment with different ways of organizing daily life.

Decentralizing the welfare state and providing care through local neighborhood-based institutions would help build more broadly democratic communities.

One pitfall of this approach, however, is that community groups can be oppressive and intolerant, maintaining their cohesion by exclusion and unable to resolve conflict through negotiation. We need to think about the kinds of collective arrangements that would minimize these potential dangers. Local control is a necessary but insufficient condition for creating democratic communities. Unless those communities interact with one another in meaningful ways, local solidarity can too easily turn into parochial protectionism.

Local decision-making allows communities to develop their own strategies for using resources and organizing their caregiving responsibilities. But the distribution of resources among communities and the establishment of a framework for making such decisions is a matter for a higher level of governance. Expanded democratic decision-making puts local groups into contact with a wider public.

One model is a council-type system of public governance, where local groups send representatives to broader regional decision-making institutions. For example, daycare cooperatives — rooted in neighborhoods, connected to housing complexes, drawing on volunteers from every child’s caring community, and employing highly skilled and well-paid childcare workers — would send representatives to a citywide daycare cooperative association.

Decision-making about caregiving at the level of the cooperative would be made jointly by the children’s caring community and the daycare providers. And through their representatives, who would regularly report back, they would also engage in dialogue about policies and resource allocation on the regional level. Control over as many decisions as possible would stay locally rooted, but active participation would be expected at the regional level and would be a condition for receiving resources.

It is important to recognize that there are many “good enough” ways to do care. Our vision of socializing care ought to include flexibility, variety, and choice. These are important values, because they force us to appreciate the complexity of human relationships and be willing to let people experiment with different strategies for living together and caring for one another. There will be different preferences about how much people want to rely on paid caregivers and how much on their communities, on each other. There will be cultural differences to be negotiated as well.

Cities have an advantage in this regard, because it is relatively easy to move from one community to another, increasing choices about how one lives. Additionally, with good public transportation, people from diverse communities have expanded opportunities to meet face-to-face in order to engage in respectful dialogue about the full range of complex issues that arise in care work — whether we do it as unpaid labor for those we care about or as skilled workers — and make no mistake, all care work is skilled, although these skills are rarely acknowledged.

Indeed, it is a testament to the resilience of humans and the power of social attachments that so many paid caregivers, as underpaid and under-appreciated as they are, find meaning in their work and do it as well as it can be done under the circumstances.

Imagine how good paid caregiving would be if it was done through publicly funded cooperatives where care workers had the opportunity for intellectual and professional development, where they had control over the work itself, where they had the time to do the work to meet the needs of the people they care for, and of course where they earned high wages and social recognition.

We already have glimpses of how such institutions might work. Quebec’s publicly funded childcare centers are jointly administered by unionized workers and parents, who serve on elected boards. Quebec’s childcare workers earn well above the wages of their peers across Canada. The workers and their union, along with parents, have been a powerful organizing force in the province to maintain and expand the system and to fund it through increased taxation.

Worker cooperatives are growing in the care sector. According to one estimate, one-third of all cooperative enterprises in the US are service providers. Philadelphia’s Childspace operates three worker-owned and -managed childcare centers. Five worker-owned cleaning businesses in Oakland, established with the help of cooperative incubator Prospera (formerly WAGES), have ninety-five worker members, and Beyond Care Cooperative in Brooklyn has forty-two members who provide childcare services.

Most cooperative enterprises are of relatively modest size. But even a very large care work enterprise can be cooperatively run. Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx is a unionized provider of home care to seniors and disabled people, and also a workers’ cooperative with 1,600 worker-members, almost all women of color working as caregivers, who make key decisions about how to invest the co-op’s resources. Home care workers also participate in developing training programs and improving services to their clients.

These organizations provide a window into the possibilities for local shared governance for high-quality care. They tell us little about how we might organize to govern public services across an entire city.

Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, which originated under the Workers’ Party (PT), offers another glimpse into a possible democratic socialist future. The participatory budgeting process starts with assemblies open to all residents in the city’s sixteen districts, where officials provide general information about the city budget. These are followed by neighborhood meetings where budget priorities are discussed.

At a second round of district assemblies, district representatives are elected for each neighborhood based on the number of people attending from that neighborhood. This proportional representation rule ensures diversity among elected representatives.

The district assembly also elects two representatives and two alternates to represent the district on the citywide Municipal Budget Council. In the months following the elections, the delegates meet in District Budget Forums to develop districtwide priority lists. The Municipal Budget Council then determines how to distribute funds among the districts.

The government of Porto Alegre invested enormous resources into deepening democratic participation. Community organizers fanned out into the many poor and working-class neighborhoods on the periphery of the city that had been excluded from political decision-making. New district offices were created, bringing city administration into closer contact with the population.

While people often entered into the participatory budgeting process with only their particular needs in mind, over time they began to feel solidarity for others and to see their own interests more broadly.

As Rebecca Abers found in her study of participatory budgeting in one of the poorest areas of Porto Alegre, many individuals “who began to participate for the sake of their street were, a year or two later, champions of ‘districtwide’ issues, defending projects that would promote the economic revitalization of the southern part of the city or protect ecological reserves in the rural area of the municipality.”

Cooperative and democratic institutions like participatory budgeting, care-worker cooperatives, and cohousing are inspiring, but they can only realize their potential in the context of other fundamental changes.

First among these are a universal shorter workday and workweek that free up time for caring, community participation, and political engagement. Second are workplaces where the job expectations and career trajectories are organized around the assumption that all workers have caring responsibilities and will engage in work accordingly.

The universal character of these workplace norms is crucial. One of the reasons women earn less than men over their lifetimes is that employers differentially reward employees based on their “commitment” to work, years of experience, and availability to work overtime. Employees pay a long-term penalty for even relatively short exits from the labor force. Women are far more likely than men to shape their employment around the demands of both childcare and elder care, so they fall behind. Generous paid family leave has many virtues, but does not address this problem.

So long as employers have a stranglehold on workers’ time, the conflict between paid work and care will remain. So long as care services are either underfunded as public goods or thrown into the competitive pressures of the market, households, and primarily the women in them, will feel forced to “choose” to shoulder these “labors of love.”

A movement is emerging in the US to challenge the so-called flexible scheduling that now dominates the retail and food service industries. Opponents have focused attention on problems faced by parents, especially single mothers, who are continually on call or given only one or two days’ notice of their work schedules. Here we see very clearly how the profit motive undermines care.

As we engage in and support these struggles defending life against profit, we should continue to look beyond the narrow horizons imposed by capital’s current domination, engaging in prefigurative projects and imagining alternative ways to care in social relationships and institutions that are collective but also democratic, self-reflective, and open to difference.