What is productive work in an economy–real work, jobs that we value for adding value to an economy? What is it, in other words, that we value. What we value is a function of several decision-making processes; among them are the human–food, shelter, health, and personal security; the purely economic–those jobs that transform a basic or primary resource into something of use to others; and the moral–what humanity values for its metaphysical or numinous quality.
While the term is no longer en vogue, the public sector is conflated in civic discourse with the “nanny state”–it provides those supposedly superfluous services that are otherwise without real economic value. The government does “caretaker” work supposedly, and the term “nanny” state is not accidental. Much of public sector work is so-called “woman’s work,” work that often earns little more than sneers from champions of the private sector and its munificent spontaneous order. Public sector employees are teachers, librarians, social workers, case workers, child care providers, nurses, and so forth. As the public sector shrinks, the economic security of workers in these professions evaporates; and in the neoliberal climate of the last 30 plus years, growing the public sector once its been shrunk means that that economic security is unlikely to return.
Over the last three years of the recession, 80% of the net employment gains have gone to men, and despite the recession officially ending three years ago, the public sector has continued to lose jobs, and women have been disproportionately impacted by that trend.
This isn’t an accident, even if it isn’t a result of an organized effort by a particular cabal. In a policy atmosphere that hews to the idea that the market grants value to economic activity, and that “social engineering” produces quasi-immoral results, it is rational that historically “feminine” work will be under valued and discarded. It is perhaps true that in the short-term economic sense, elder care, social work, and teaching are not valuable. Support for such work requires a conscience decision by civic institutions. Even those private institutions that can turn a profit providing these services rely critically on government programs–either because they are directly contracted by government to provide them, or because government programs like Medicare, Medicaid, or TANF provide the main source of funds for their clientele.
It is of course just outmoded attitudes that characterize “caretaker” work as feminine in people’s minds; there is nothing inherently feminine about social work, or nursing, or child care. We’re conditioned to consider care taking work as feminine, and for that reason presumably women gravitate towards it (or more likely, men gravitate away from it, apologizing for the impossibility of something gravitating away from something).
But of course, given the structure of the mainstream American political left, it’s hard to make a moral case that repudiates the so-called “spontaneous order” of the market. Lip service is paid to a society that cares for the “less fortunate,” but in practice, the Democratic Party in particular can’t operate in a way that acts on these ambiguities.
And the problem remains multifarious. So long as these jobs are dominated by women, they’ll be undervalued, because women are undervalued; jobs that provide care will always be labor intensive, and thus hard to profit from, no matter what the increases in efficiency; because the wealthy–the choice consumer group–can always provide for their own care, the caretaking industries will always rely on socialized models anathema to those institutions and social cohorts who finance elections and employ lobbyists; and because of the dominance of the male worldview of labor, caretaking will not be considered “productive” work.
In the meantime, needed care goes unprovided, labor is further immiserated, and as so often in history, women carry the burden, particularly because given family structures, care that is not provided by society will be provided for free by women, women who already account for at least forty percent of breadwinners.