Missing the Value of Care

When care is the focus of punitive welfare policy: ParentsNext 

The affective and material work of care ensures that we can continue to exist. No society—indeed no life—can persist without the many practices of care: raising the young, caring for the elderly, maintaining homes, building and sustaining communities, and the vast work of ecological care.1

Care work is easily seen during catastrophes; it’s often the work of hope. In the 2020–21 bushfires we saw care given to injured and suffering wildlife, and grieving people. Care was visible in the distribution of supplies and in demands to government for better action on climate change. And again during COVID, care work (paid and unpaid) was at the frontline as we fought the illness and ensured our survival while we were locked down. 

Outside times of crisis, this work is also undertaken in the day to day, but it often goes unnoticed. Care work is largely unpaid (and if not unpaid, then underpaid), and it’s feminised. It is work relegated to women through gendered norms that structure not just the roles we take on—called the gendered division of labour—but also the very conditions that make this relegation possible.

No society or economy works without it. The capitalist economy, as Nancy Fraser says, ‘free rides’ on this unpaid work.2 It is an essential condition of our functioning, yet this work is not only treated as if it were free but expropriated by our economic system. 

Time-use surveys are essential for measuring unpaid care work, but aside from the eagerly awaited release of the current survey, the last time the ABS had funding to run such a survey was in 2006. From this 2006 data, it was estimated that the value of unpaid household, volunteer and community work ranged from 41.6 per cent to 58.7 per cent of GDP, depending on how the work was measured.3 While there is much to say about quantifying this work, the data points to the scale of free riding on unpaid care work in the economy. 

Scholars have long written about the expropriation of care and social reproduction more broadly, yet little attention has been given to the expropriation of mothers placed on punitive welfare programs.4 Recently I was able to interview women compulsorily put onto the Australian federal government’s welfare mutual-obligation program, ParentsNext. What is particularly troubling about the unpaid care labour of these women is not just that free riding is disavowed but that the women are targeted, stigmatised and punished even as their labour is expropriated.

This punishment, stigma and targeting circles around what is considered to be work. The explanatory statement of the legislative instrument for ParentsNext says that the program aims ‘to increase female participation in the workforce’. Yet this dramatically overlooks the unpaid care work women are already undertaking. 

In the interviews women reported that they were working on average eighteen hours a day. Their work included not just caring for children, which was often done as a sole parent, but also in the community, where they ran domestic violence support groups, worked in meals on wheels, advised community groups, and looked after the elderly and other people’s kids—all unpaid. Some of the women were also studying for paid vocations of care such as psychology and nursing degrees.

ParentsNext was piloted in 2016, but it expanded in 2018 to 75,000 mostly single mothers across Australia. The explanatory statement says that ParentsNext will include at least 10,000 First Nations women, and the pilots of ParentsNext included communities with a high proportion of First Nations women. ParentsNext is another example of how First Nations people are disproportionately used as trial participants in Australian social policy. (The cashless debit card is another example.) It also points to the intersection between the expropriation of social reproduction and the further expropriation of First Nations land and labour—another essential condition of Australia’s settler economy.

Maintaining conditions for free riding 

The question driving my research was: why, given that care work is essential to life and the economy, would women at the forefront of such life-giving and essential work be subject to mutual obligation? 

The answer goes firstly to tensions about the primacy given to waged labour over other forms of work. A major aspect of the ongoing expropriation of women’s unpaid care work is the separation of social reproduction from production, or what is seen as the formal economy. This separation is fundamental and allows care work to be seen as either outside the economy or not quite the economy. As Fraser says, it’s not just a separation but a subjugation of reproduction to production.

Separation and subjugation are legitimised through various gendered narratives that have shifted throughout settler history, from the naturalisation of the feminine, to the male breadwinner and family wage through to today’s two-earner-family regime where both men and women are expected to be in the labour force. Because unpaid care work is still largely obscured in the current two-wage-earner moment, women often find themselves having two jobs: one where they are paid (although many of these jobs are notoriously underpaid and precarious) and the other where they are not (unpaid care). In the two-wage-earner regime, as Fraser states, ‘women are considered the equals of men in every sphere, deserving of equal opportunities to realize their talents, including—perhaps especially—in the sphere of production. Reproduction [or care], by contrast, appears as a backward residue, an obstacle to advancement that must be sloughed off, one way or another, en route to liberation’.5 

Formal labour has not meant liberation for many women. The underpayment of feminised industries that provide care services flows on from the free riding on unpaid care because paid care work is seen as unskilled and therefore less valuable than other vocations. Linked also to this are the gender pay gap, poverty in retirement, and general precarity, which are all-too-common features of women’s lives. 

Through these regimes of gendered norms, coupled with an enduring expectation of women’s virtue and love, unpaid care is continually relegated to outside the ‘real economy’ rather than being seen as an essential condition of its very working.

The workings of social security in this current two-wage-earner moment goes to the second part of my question, and to mutual obligation. 

There is a long history to this. Since Federation, the Australian social security system has largely revolved around what Francis Castles called a wage earners’ welfare state, in that it has privileged people who earn a wage. Historically that has been men. Women, like many others, have fallen through the cracks of the deserving–undeserving dichotomy created in the wake of giving primacy to wage earners.

Welfare, in its most progressive moments, was playing catch-up for largely white women as it plugged the gaps left by patriarchal settler capitalism. The various iterations of widow’s pensions, child and maternity payments and, later, parenting payments and subsidised childcare are examples of this kind of welfare. But all of this continued to give primacy to male-dominated waged work, in a scenario where unpaid care work was undertaken largely by women—not to mention First Nations women, enslaved in domestic work as part of the stolen generation—and all of this work was seen as outside the ‘real economy’. 

Single mothers have particularly been subjugated through this history. Social security was set up not just as the wage earners’ welfare state but also as a welfare state largely revolving around the heteronormative nuclear settler family model. Single mothers presented an impediment to capitalism’s ability to use the nuclear family as a means of keeping the expropriation of women’s unpaid labour hidden. 

The result in part has been the stigmatising of single mothers. This stigma has a long history in Australia, and includes vagrancy laws that prosecuted women and emphasised the institution of marriage as the solution to unmarried females. Early in the twentieth century eugenic ideology permeated Australian society, including some progressive policies that were based on what is known as positive eugenics. Instead of sterilisation and the breeding out of certain traits, positive eugenics encouraged the development of desirable traits. How single mothers raised their children was one area of concern by some of these eugenicists.

With the shift towards the two-waged model the welfare system became both more punitive and more focused on women. For example, in 2016 the then Human Services minister, Christian Porter, commissioned the use of actuary data by PwC in order to identify groups in the population that would produce the biggest cost to Australia’s social security in the coming years. Single mothers, along with young carers and young people, were the top three groups so identified. Young people were identified because they would need support to seek further study or because they have the most difficulty getting into the labour market, and carers and single mothers were identified because their work isn’t counted as work, and they are seen as dependent. 

Mutual obligations for mothers

The contemporary punitive turn in Australian social security features the disinvestment from actual payments made to individuals (including cuts to parenting payments—especially those that single parents rely on), as well as investment in punitive mutual-obligation programs such as ParentsNext. 

ParentsNext is compulsory for parents who have been receiving a parenting payment for at least six months, whose youngest child is between six months and six years old, and who has not reported paid work to Centrelink in the last six months. People placed on ParentsNext are forced to develop a ‘participation plan’ with the service provider, which includes agreeing on specific activities that parents will undertake that, according to the department, ‘fit with family life and education/employment goals’ and ‘help prepare them for work’. People on ParentsNext are then expected to fulfil these activities as part of the compliance requirement, which also includes provisions not simply for attending activities and provider appointments but also for regularly self-reporting their income. Attending these activities is not voluntary. Failure to attend activities or self-report results in suspension of parenting payments, which is often the only source of income.

Women interviewed in my research found these activities redundant. One interviewee was told she had to take her child to a library group. She couldn’t understand how this helped her get job ready since she was already a qualified chef taking time off to look after her sister’s high-needs daughter. 

The 2018 Senate inquiry noted similar issues and recommended that the ParentsNext program should not continue in its current form. It also recommended that ‘ParentsNext be reshaped, through a process of co-design with parents and experts, into a more supportive pre-employment program which meets the needs of parents and acknowledges and addresses the structural barriers to employment which they face’.

This has not happened and ParentsNext continues in its punitive form.

ParentsNext and expropriation

The Senate inquiry did not consider the subjugation of women’s care work to notions of formal employment, yet this is intensified in three notable ways under ParentsNext. 

First, for interviewees, dealing with the compulsory requirements of ParentsNext under the constant threat of sanctions was just more work put on the shoulders of these already very busy women. ‘I’m doing it all, but I am stretched. I can’t seem to do anything enough right’, said one interviewee with two girls. She was studying to be a qualified nurse in Australia, even though she was already skilled as a nurse in the United Kingdom. 

Women’s lives and care work were often refracted through violent patriarchal relations. Not all, but many women interviewed had experienced domestic violence. For some women, it was the result of such violence and the need to leave quickly with limited financial resources, or the requirement to quit or reduce employment in order to look after their children that pushed them into needing social security. Women recovering from the trauma of domestic violence often felt that ParentsNext was like entering another abusive relationship: ‘The conditionality is like a new violent relationship‚—financial and psychologically abusive’, one interviewee said.

Expropriation is intensified through ParentsNext, through what some interviewees referred to as the profiteering of service providers contracted to administer their mutual obligations. Here, the care work undertaken by women is expropriated not just by the economy and broader society but also through not-for-profit surplus and private companies’ profits. People subject to the mutual-obligation industry are, as Chris Grover says, ‘treated as a commodity in developing employment services markets’.6 Two interviewees already studying for degrees and receiving ParentsNext payments were told to continue their studies as their activities. The interviewees were aware that the provider was paid by the government to retain them in ParentsNext, despite the fact that the provider offered no value to or financial support for the activities they were already undertaking.

The third way expropriation is intensified is through the stigmatisation of people who are compulsorily put on ParentsNext. The government’s mantras about welfare dependency and the prospect of intergenerational welfare dependency are described as if they were diseases that children might catch from their mothers. One interviewee on ParentsNext living regionally talked about the stigma she had experienced: ‘It is an echo chamber, but that’s what happens a lot when you’re a single mum… You’re stigmatised into the—it’s a harsh word—but the useless pile. You’re never going to amount to anything because you’ve ruined your whole life by not having a husband… We’re societal lepers’. 

Welfare dependency and broader intergenerational poverty discourse has historical links with eugenic thinking in which only ‘desirable’ women should be encouraged to have children. Such narratives emerged again in 2020. Former prime minister Tony Abbott publicly suggested that middle-class women should be supported in having children: ‘While I’m all in favour of stay-at-home-mums if that’s their choice, I do think that a properly conservative government, acknowledging that having a family is one of the most wonderful things that anyone can do, would make it easier for women in the workforce to have more kids… That is a real problem in every Western country: middle-class women do not have enough kids. Women in the welfare system have lots of kids’.7 

The work of single mothers for eighteen to twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, undertaken often alone but extremely effectively, is denied completely. Rather than recognising that the economy is dependent on and expropriating their labour, single mothers are accused of being welfare dependant.

Centring care

We need to go further than finding the balance between family and work, which has been an important focus of the feminist movement for the last thirty-plus years. While this focus may have helped some women, many others find themselves either in precarious and underpaid work or stigmatised by social security. 

So alongside important efforts to make waged labour better for those lucky enough to be in it, we also need a concentration on efforts towards the liberation of care. It’s about confronting the ongoing subjugation of reproduction to production and a need for deep structural transformation of the social order that reinvents the production–reproduction distinction.

Perhaps a first step would be to take seriously the unpaid care work undertaken by women who are compulsorily put onto ParentsNext. They care not only for their children but also for others—other people’s children and older people. They undertake work in the community, and they engage in study. They do this under extraordinary systemic oppression by the state through punitive social security programs like ParentsNext. These women are not lepers but heroines.

In doing this work women show that care is a productive and a cultivating task. We should be acknowledging their work as a model of a caring post-COVID-19 economy, rather than allowing its denigration by patriarchal structures.

This is not to romantise care, which is not a wholesome or unpolluted and pleasant ethical realm. However, care is potentially both a practice and an ontology with the capacity to disrupt the status quo and unhinge processes that lead to what Tony Fry calls our ‘defuturing’—the unravelling of life from ecological and economic crises.8 Care then becomes an aspect of the delinking of economic security from waged labour through a basic income, and also introduces the prospect of resocialising economic relations altogether.

We saw a snippet of how different things could be only recently. With the flick of a pen the treasurer changed social security into something like a form of basic income. With mutual obligations suspended and a $550 coronavirus supplement, many people moved above the poverty line.9

Through our interviews we found that lives changed when single mothers, among others, were given some financial security. Their daily struggle to meet basic needs diminished, and they were able to afford healthy and regular food and medicines, which made caring for children easier as well as improving physical and psychological well-being overall. They also had more time because of the suspension of mutual obligations such as those of ParentsNext and were able to further their work of educating children, caring for others, and undertaking advocacy and community work. They were also able to use the extra time and money to engage with the labour market or start further study.

The government’s own mini basic-income experiment during COVID-19 has shown that society does not fall apart when social security becomes a caring and generous system. The changes enabled recipients to undertake productive activities in ways that demolished the assumption that those on welfare are bludging and using their time unwisely. Equally, it showed that punitive social policies are counterproductive. 

This is a lesson upon which we should build. People should be generously remunerated for care, mutual obligations should be abolished, and gendered norms should be demolished so there is a genuine redistribution of care work.

We can and should be doing so much better.

1 Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017; Joan Tronto, ‘Human rights, democracy and care’, The Good Society, 16 (2), 2007, pp 38–40; Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012.

2 Nancy Fraser, ‘Contradictions of Capital and Care’, New Left Review, 100 July/August 2016, pp 1–34. 

3 ABS (2014), ABS 5202.0 – Spotlight on National Accounts: Unpaid Work and the Australian Economy, Canberra: ABS,  May 2014, https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/PrimaryMainFeatures/5202.0?OpenDocument#

4 For an extended analysis, see Elise Klein, ‘Unpaid care, welfare conditionality and expropriation’, Gender Work Organ, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12679.

5 Fraser, ‘Contradictions of Capital and Care’, p. 23.

6 Chris Grover, ‘Privatizing employment services in Britain’, Critical Social Policy, 29 (3), 2009, pp 487–509.

7 Nick Bonyhady, ‘Abbott calls for middle class women to have more children’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 January 2020, retrieved from https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/abbott-calls-for-middle-class-women-to-have-more-children-20200128-p53vkx.html

8 Tony Fry, A New Design Philosophy: An Introduction to Defuturing, Sydney: UNSW Press, 1999.

9 See E. Klein, K. Cook, M. Maury and K. Bowey, Social Security and Time Use During COVID-19, Melbourne: Swinburne University of Technology & Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, 2021, https://www.cfecfw.asn.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Social-security-and-time-use-during-COVID-19-Report-Treating-Families-Fairly-2021.pdf

About the author

Elise Klein

Elise Klein is a Senior Lecturer of Public Policy at the Crawford School, Australian National University. Her research focuses on development policy with a specific interest in work, redistribution, decoloniality and care.

More articles by Elise Klein

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