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The Pandemic Is a Family Emergency

How the coronavirus exposes a crisis of care work

No one anticipated that when the fabric of society finally unraveled, in March 2020, everyone would turn into June Cleaver. People made all their meals from scratch, gloated over their sourdough starter, and sewed their own face masks. Secular urban professionals scoured Mormon blogs for homeschooling tips. Actually, a Leave It to Beaver–style arrangement was about the best you could hope for: Most people’s lives abruptly deteriorated into far more dystopian scenes than those associated with the iconic housewife. Some maintained full telecommuting workloads while their kids remained at home. Workers considered “essential” faced serious danger of infection, and panic over who would watch their children while they worked. The chores were never done; there were no weddings or PTA meetings to look forward to; no friends stopped by for coffee. As a friend of mine put it, housework and parenting are hard on the best days. These were not the best days.

When Covid-19 became a lethal threat to Americans in early spring, debate raged over how to contain it. Not all considerations were epidemiological. While many public health experts urged closing public schools—along with any other place where it was difficult for humans to stay six feet from one another—others wondered how parents would manage without school, which doubles as childcare. Poor families and children are dependent on the public education system to provide basic sustenance as well. In New York City, the epicenter of the outbreak, students get free meals at school, not to mention access to health care, social workers, and even, for some—crucial given that one in 10 children in the school system is homeless—a place to do laundry.

Meanwhile, the safety of those providing this vital care work was systematically disregarded. Teachers came down with symptoms, and their colleagues were forced to keep teaching. At Brooklyn Tech, one of New York City’s premier specialized high schools, five teachers told their union representative that they had tested positive for the coronavirus. After closing the school to children, the Department of Education kept it open for faculty and staff for a few more days. A vibrant 36-year-old school principal named Dez-Ann Romain was the first public school worker reported to die. The beloved educator ran the Brooklyn Democracy Academy, a transfer high school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. (Transfer high schools serve students who have struggled in traditional public schools.) Before that, Romain had been an art teacher. A former student told Time, “She didn’t just teach us art.... She taught us how to be leaders in our own light.” By mid-April, more than 60 employees of the school system had died of coronavirus. Paraprofessionals, or teacher’s aides, who are paid poorly and tend to be women of color, were hit especially hard, accounting for 41 percent of deaths despite making up just 17 percent of the workforce.

Educators were not the only care workers whose bosses showed indifference to their safety and survival. Some comparatively well-off families continued to rely on home nanny care well after social distancing was recommended. Other nannies were told to stay home without pay, or simply dismissed. As an Atlanta nanny told Slate, “I wish the families I work for would say, you can have some money and just take care of yourself. That’s not what’s happening.” Many cleaners suffered; employers complied with the stay-at-home orders by asking them not to come to work, yet were unwilling to pay them to stay away. Some were no doubt acting selfishly, while others simply couldn’t afford to keep paying. Since many domestic workers are undocumented and therefore excluded from the federal aid offered to others during the crisis, they have endured serious economic deprivation. The National Domestic Workers Alliance, which advocates for better pay and working conditions for house cleaners, home care workers, and nannies, raised money for emergency assistance—a “Coronavirus Care Fund”—to help these workers safely stay home during the pandemic. But a series of charitable appeals will hardly be able to support all those facing hardship.

As schools and other businesses closed, so did day care centers. Not everywhere, though: In Connecticut, for example, day care facilities are considered essential. Most closed anyway, but some stayed open, leaving workers facing the dilemma of either exposing themselves to disease or risking the loss of their jobs by refusing to come in. Many parents depend on grandparents as fallback childcare, but the coronavirus suddenly rendered this makeshift set-up dangerous, because older people, if they contract the illness, are much more likely than younger people to become very sick and die. Parents tried to protect their own parents by keeping their kids away from them.

The closing of schools and day care centers pushed care work back into the homes, even as waged work was pushed into the home, too. Many tried gamely to make the best of this doubling of labor. A joke circulated on Twitter: Tell us something that your kid did but substitute the phrase “my co-worker” for their name. “#Mycoworker just pooped on the floor ... don’t worry though! My other co-worker ate it.” Some parents began to homeschool their children. A contingent embraced the task with alarming fervor, earnestly posting their wholesome family schedules on social media. School systems compounded the general confusion by requiring children to engage in “distance learning,” an educationally dubious proposition that, unless your children were more self-motivated and less depressed about their newfound confinement than mine, had to be extensively supervised and enforced. Housework, too, was amplified. With everyone home all day, the house got dirtier than usual. Oh, and everything needed to be much cleaner than usual or it could kill you.

More meals had to be prepared; not only breakfast and dinner but, now that everyone was home all day, also lunch. The food shopping had to be done—more of a challenge now that you had to do it without contracting a virus, clean everything with Lysol when you got home, and perhaps buy groceries for your elderly parents and neighbors, too. It was difficult to find certain staples. People on food stamps couldn’t shop until they got their checks, and then found that their better-off neighbors had ransacked the supermarket shelves. While some grocery stores took care to enforce social distancing, limiting the number of shoppers who could be inside at one time and making employees and customers wear gloves and masks, other outlets got frighteningly mobbed. When a store was enacting best practices, shopping took twice as long, because of all that waiting outside.

The strain was distressingly apparent. As the weather warmed and more people left their windows open, you could hear parents and children yelling at each other. Romantic relationships foundered. Calls to child abuse and domestic violence hotlines spiked.

It’s not clear when the sweeping disruptions wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic will lessen or cease, but there is, at least, an intellectual tradition that helps make sense of our plight. The novel coronavirus dramatically escalated what many scholars were already calling a “crisis of social reproduction.” Although it’s a mouthful, the term is not all that theoretically complicated. It originates in social reproduction theory (SRT), a left feminist intellectual school of thought enjoying a robust revival over recent years, whose core insight is that, while capitalist profit-making is completely dependent on the essential work of caring for people, of keeping them alive and healthy—what the historian Tithi Bhattacharya calls “the processes of lifemaking”—it is also completely at odds with this labor.

The logic is at once obvious and profound: Capitalists must make profits, and profits are impossible without workers. Indeed, as Bhattacharya explains, capitalism “depends on workers being alive and reproducing new generations of workers.” At the same time, capitalists must perennially try to drive down the cost of lifemaking. They don’t want to pay high taxes, so the institutions that sustain life—public schools, hospitals, parks—go underfunded. In fact, when there is a crisis of profitability, Bhattacharya contends, these are the first institutions to suffer. Nannies, teachers, and home health care workers must likewise be devalued, their labor unpaid or kept low. Even the “family wage” of the mid–twentieth century, which allowed Ward Cleaver to earn enough for June to stay home, and which basically included a stipend for June’s housework and child-rearing labor, turned out to be much more than most capitalists in America were willing to pay.

A classic example of corporations’ unwillingness to remunerate the costs of social reproduction can be found in their frequently less-than-welcoming reactions to workers’ pregnancies. A boss who refuses to hire or accommodate a pregnant woman is communicating clearly that he is unwilling to support the next generation of workers. Really, anyone caring for a baby presents a problem, because babies are, as the writer Maureen Tkacik recently put it, “time-murdering.” They create zero value for the employer, and they compete for the employee’s time. And while capitalists in the future need people to make profits for them, capitalists of the present could not care less about those future capitalists’ demands for healthy, well-educated laborers, any more than present-day tycoons worry about how a climate apocalypse might affect their 2050 counterparts. Like the health of the planet, the well-being of children is one of those issues that makes it jarringly clear that capitalists have no long-term commitment to capitalism. (They may have no real short-term commitment to it, either. The Marxist thinker James O’Connor argued back in 1988 that capitalism has a tendency to neglect or destroy the very things that make it possible—nature, infrastructure, communities, families.)

Although the basis for SRT can be found in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and in even earlier socialist thought, the theory came into its own in the late 1960s, as second-wave feminism upended households and schooled a cohort of left feminist intellectuals. This group wanted to apply a materialist analysis to the experience of women, and to force materialism to account for women’s mostly unwaged labor in the home. Margaret Benston, a Canadian chemistry professor who died in 1991, analyzed the political economy of women’s unpaid work in a 1969 Monthly Review article. Benston is credited with sparking the debates that led to the international “Wages for Housework” movement, which launched in Italy in 1972 to demand recognition—and, crucially, recompense—for the unpaid and invisible labor in the domestic sphere.

The influence of SRT waned in the 1980s and 1990s, with the waning of the socialist tradition more generally. For a couple of decades, it seemed many feminist academics could do little but argue about pornography. But lately SRT has made a dynamic comeback, both in the academy and, to an extent, in writing for a more general audience. n+1, notably, has repeatedly revisited the Wages for Housework movement and the work of some of its early proponents, including Silvia Federici and Selma James. A 2017 anthology devoted to scholarly work on SRT was joined last year by Feminism for the 99 Percent: A Manifesto, which grounded its case for gender equality on a thoroughgoing restructuring of society meant to benefit the condition of all women, not merely advance the professional careers of a few. A newly launched journal, Spectre, places SRT at its intellectual center. In its recent incarnation, SRT has been informed by queer rethinking of the family, as well as by the insights of black socialist feminists on how social reproduction is particularly racialized under capitalism. In this revival of SRT, scholars have also grown more skeptical that problems of social reproduction can be addressed voluntarily, without any broader political confrontation with a capitalist class indifferent to care work and the women who usually provide it.

As its theorists are well aware, the basic conditions of social reproduction were in dire straits long before the coronavirus invaded. Decent and affordable childcare in the United States has been scandalously hard to come by ever since women began entering the workforce in greater numbers. Adults with kids spend on average between 9 and 22 percent of their income on childcare; for poor people, the burden is much higher—on the order of 35 percent. Black, Latina, and Asian mothers struggle especially to find and afford good childcare.

Meanwhile, childcare workers are paid disastrously low wages, an average of $11 an hour. Despite the well-established emotional and intellectual importance of the first three years of human development, day care receives little oversight. Parents with limited time and expertise are expected to inspect each potential childcare center themselves, evaluating them for health and safety risks and adequate pedagogy. Many have removed their kids from day care situations that didn’t measure up. Others, lacking any alternative, have simply had to put up with poor conditions.

The crisis in social reproduction is the handiwork of governments as well as the private sector. All over the world, states have grown less generous in helping workers take care of the rest of their lives, especially their children. Increasingly, less public money for childcare and K-12 education has been available even in more generous Western democracies, but in the United States, the situation is especially brutal. Austerity results in cutbacks to public services, the absence of which creates more work for people at home, but also hammers those who are public-sector workers. When workers’ wages are squeezed and their safety nets weakened, they find it more difficult to leave abusive relationships and workplaces. As states have weakened their social welfare functions and strengthened the power of markets—a regime many intellectuals call “neoliberalism”—life-giving institutions and processes, and above all the workers performing that life-giving work, suffer. Most of those workers are women.

The female reader can at this point be forgiven for taking neoliberalism a bit personally. The crisis of capitalism is a particular crisis for women, who were already working too hard. Though our gut feeling about the truth of this statement is a good start, its best empirical measures typically surface in time-use surveys—studies of how people spend their days. According to such research, women spend twice as much time as men housecleaning and preparing food. They spend three times as much time on laundry. They do almost four times as much physical care of children—changing diapers, say, or giving the baby a bath. To examine social reproduction, even before the coronavirus, is inevitably to pose a question: How much labor can women possibly perform at once?

In her 2019 book, Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight Over Women’s Work, Jenny Brown argues that ordinary women are resisting these impossible working conditions by doing what sensible people do in such situations: going on strike. Birth rates are declining, Brown argues, because women are refusing the labor of reproduction. As she points out, this has considerably raised the stakes for abortion politics: The right-wing assault on abortion rights persistently forecloses women’s ability to decline labor that is becoming more and more difficult to perform well, if at all.

In desperate times—pandemics, yes, but also war, famine, and the disasters that have become more frequent because of climate change, such as fires and megastorms—the difficult work of lifemaking becomes even harder. Rural women in arid African regions have known this for years; with more frequent drought, they must walk much farther to get water for their families. When I talked to her recently, Tithi Bhattacharya described the daily routine of a couple in China she’d read about: both doctors working long hours to care for Covid-19 patients while their 11-year-old daughter stayed at home. Before leaving for work in the morning, the mother made three meals for her child, so she wouldn’t go hungry while the parents were away. Bhattacharya noted that, though the parents have the same job outside the home, it’s the mother’s responsibility to prepare the daughter’s food. The gendered divisions of labor in this highly educated professional household aren’t, as it turns out, much more flexible in times of catastrophe than those maintained by villagers and pastoral nomads in the Horn of Africa.

While many social reproduction theorists view all of neoliberalism as a crisis, a devastating public health disaster like the one we’ve been living through can offer bracing political clarity. The anthropologist Kate Doyle Griffiths, who teaches at Brooklyn College and did dissertation work on the AIDS crisis in South Africa, reports that the coronavirus has changed their thinking about social reproduction. (Griffiths identifies as nonbinary and uses “they” as a pronoun.) In South Africa, from 2008 to 2012, Griffiths saw AIDS transform society. This happened because of those doing the care: Nurses were not only doing the social reproduction of saving lives at work, but also, Griffiths explains, acting as “the breadwinners ... as well as the people organizing social reproduction for their households.” Nurses had an intimate view of how that pandemic was affecting the family lives of their patients, who were generally even poorer than themselves. The hardship that medical professionals were facing led to strikes in hospitals, and those strikes converted South Africa’s AIDS crisis into a broader political crisis. South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, was voted out of office; the government was forced to end its policy of HIV denialism; and ultimately, antiretroviral drugs to treat AIDS were made universally available, at least in theory.

When Griffiths left South Africa, they generalized what they had experienced—it was easy to see the terrible inequities that occur everywhere under neoliberalism as crises of social reproduction. But it wasn’t until the coronavirus pandemic that Griffiths returned to the question of when and how a social reproduction crisis becomes a political crisis. In their view, the challenges of a disaster such as this one dramatically expose the fragility of the whole system, and the intensity and rapidity of the breakage can inspire the kind of political pressure that forces social change. In fact, the potential of this moment has made Griffiths feel that social reproduction theorists like themselves have probably, up until now, been “over-anticipating” the political potential of the struggles that came before.

Nevertheless, those responsible for social reproduction had already been organizing. For the last several years, the global work stoppages every March 8, on International Women’s Day, have in many countries been large and visible, especially among public-sector workers. And women’s labor protests have not been limited to that one symbolic day. Domestic workers in particular have been fighting for and sometimes winning protections. “Neoliberalism has cut these sectors to the bone,” Bhattacharya told me. “It is not a surprise that they would be the first to rise up.” In Morocco, India, and even the often-quiescent United States, teachers, too, have gone on strike and won significant victories. Griffiths, who did fieldwork on the West Virginia teachers’ strikes of 2018, which sparked the national wave of teachers’ strikes that year, now sees those actions as the ultimate result of a different public health emergency: the opioid epidemic. When widespread illness causes families to fall apart and people lose their ability to care for one another as they ordinarily would, teachers and nurses are both on the front lines of the problem. West Virginia “was another hot spot,” Griffiths told me, where a social reproduction crisis turned into a political crisis, “in the Marxist sense of workplace action.”

Have politicians taken any notice at all of these shifts? Matters of social reproduction were almost absent from 2016 presidential discourse, despite the presence of a socialist and a woman in the Democratic primary. But in the 2020 primary, several Democratic candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg, presented detailed plans to offer more childcare, and to make it more affordable and better (in Sanders’s case, free, universal, and public). Sanders, who was criticized last time around for saying too little about K-12 education—the closest thing the United States already has to universal childcare—made the defense of public schools and increased teacher pay central to his platform in the 2020 cycle. Though Andrew Yang was never likely to become president, his presence in the race popularized the idea of the universal basic income, which has many implications for social reproduction, not least by reminding us that all care labor is easier when there is less waged work to perform.

Other Democratic primary candidates, by contrast, offered a window on to the prevailing elite contempt for people who perform care work. In 1997, in a discrimination lawsuit that was settled out of court, a former employee of Mike Bloomberg alleged that when she told him of her pregnancy, he said, “Kill it.” (Bloomberg denied saying this.) He is alleged to have told another employee, a saleswoman in his company who was having trouble finding childcare, “All you need is some black, who doesn’t even have to speak English, to rescue it from a burning building!” He eloquently noted that all “it” does is “eat and shit.” Bloomberg’s comments were blunt and vulgar, but he was making explicit the pervasive views of the capitalist class: Reproductive labor is a cost that needs to be minimized, by degrading everyone who does it or needs it.

Bloomberg’s humiliating defeat should offer a beacon of hope in these dark times, but the defeat of his way of thinking will require more than a few good debate zingers. Americans have been comforted, for example, by Andrew Cuomo’s serious speeches addressing New York’s emergency response to Covid-19, which provided stark contrast with Trump’s clownish, meandering press conferences on the crisis. Just weeks into the pandemic, the liberal internet began begging Cuomo to run for president. But in their disgust for children and all who need care, in their racist and sexist disdain for the labor of social reproduction, Cuomo’s policies have something in common with Bloomberg’s intemperate remarks. In April, Cuomo threatened devastating cuts to the state’s education budget, just after it had proved itself so indispensable to so many. Disregarding the labor of parents and especially teachers—and with no extra pay for the teachers—he issued an executive order to keep distance learning ongoing through spring break. And as the bodies piled up in Brooklyn, as tents were erected in Central Park to serve as a makeshift hospital for Covid-19 patients, as the city began to bury the unclaimed dead in mass graves, Cuomo cut the state’s hospital budget.

There is, however, cause for some collective hope. The pandemic has revealed that workers and governments can adapt nimbly and humanely to serve the pressing needs of children and of our whole society, and that our ideas about the proper role of the state can change, too. Because of the massive economic pain caused by the coronavirus, the U.S. government’s safety net is greatly expanding, as even some Republican politicians argue that the recent emergency relief measures don’t go far enough to help ordinary people. After closing, New York City’s school system continued to provide free meals to children, and began providing three free meals a day to any New Yorker in need. It invented a new program to offer day care for the children whose parents are considered essential workers: 93 “enrichment centers” in which kids were kept six feet apart, cared for, and fed. The programs seem to be doing a fine job of keeping the kids safe but also genuinely enriched: Children interviewed by The New York Times loved having gym and art all afternoon instead of test-oriented academic instruction. Describing this schedule, an 11-year-old said, grinning, “In normal school, we have to work all the time.”

The girl’s comment offers a peek, however glancing and provisional, at the benefits of a wholly different way of arranging our society. Must school be organized as it has been? Must care work go so profoundly unrewarded? Must everyone, adults and kids, “work all the time”? If we are in a political crisis, we can, by definition, force longer-term change. Indeed, that is usually the only way such change comes about. The Democratic candidates’ newfound interest in childcare and the states’ surprising scramble to meet the needs of families during the pandemic offer a good start. On the left, it has become a cliché to point to the success of social safety nets in Nordic countries—the combination of universal childcare, well-funded and high-quality K-12 education, more paid sick and family leave, income support for parents who want to stay home with their children, a shorter workweek. The political economist Robert Heilbroner once referred to this political horizon as a “slightly imaginary Sweden.” Such a regime would indeed help address our everyday social reproduction crisis and leave us better prepared for the next pandemic.

Yet these social democratic reforms still leave the family, with its unequal division of labor and gender-based power dynamics, intact. Even at its most egalitarian and well-off—perhaps even in Imaginary Sweden—the nuclear family may find the social reproduction workload too burdensome. Two adults isn’t many, when those adults must also juggle the countless tasks of care work with full-time wage labor. The way out of this bind lies beyond both capitalism and the nuclear family, and demands that we admit into our intimate business either a larger community or a more expansive government, or both. Some contemporary social reproduction theorists, including Michelle O’Brien, a sociologist at NYU, urge a deeper restructuring of society around collective living arrangements such as communes, which can distribute housework and the labor of caring for children, the elderly, and the sick. In the early twentieth century, the Bolshevik feminist thinker Alexandra Kollontai imagined ways that the communist state could free women from the burdens of the domestic sphere and allow them to participate fully in work outside the home. Kollontai dreamed of all-day nurseries, as well as free state-sponsored restaurants, cafeterias, and laundries, ideas that Margaret Benston revived in her landmark 1969 essay. Kollontai’s proposed communist state would have made house cleaners into well-paid public servants who cleaned everyone’s apartments for free. Can we move there now, as soon as we’re allowed out of our homes?

In the coronavirus era, the sudden visibility of the work of social reproduction may be good news for all who perform this labor. Everyone providing care needs and deserves help, better pay and working conditions, and public support in their fight to achieve these rights. Perhaps the support begins with respect. Around the United States, people have been coming out of their homes or appearing at their windows every night at 7 p.m. to thank essential workers: nurses, doctors, first responders. In a moment of mandatory social isolation, this gesture, in concert with others, feels like a genuine expression of solidarity. There are other glimmers of possibility, too. Some families, freed from grueling work and school routines, are finding themselves able to invent schedules that work better for them. Teenagers are finally getting enough sleep. Parents who previously spent hours commuting have more time to spend with their loved ones.

We discovered something else as sustained social distancing averted deaths around the world. (In the United States alone, it could spare as many as 600,000 people.) We learned that when we must, we can assume responsibility for one another’s well-being. Paradoxically, even as the pandemic has produced a political crisis of social reproduction, exposing unconscionable inequities and gaps in our organization of care work, it also proved that we can drop everything to organize society around a profound act of solicitude. As we give up many of our pleasures, make terrifying financial sacrifices, and drive our intimates nuts, we are doing so with the understanding that the work of keeping people alive must be shared by all. The coronavirus may leave our society shattered, traumatized, and economically devastated, but if we can rebuild from this insight, we’ll still be better off than we were before.