Why Are Care Workers Paid So Little: Society to Blame?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Bullshit Jobs" by David Graeber. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why are care workers paid so little? How do cultural values contribute to underpaying care workers?

Author and anthropologist David Graeber wrote Bullshit Jobs in part to explain how society undervalues care work. According to him, because care work doesn’t produce goods, society views it as less important and justifies paying care workers so little.

Read on to learn more about why care workers are paid so little, according to Graeber.

Society Undervalues Care Workers

In his book Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber argues that industrial societies enable pointless jobs—work that serves no purpose for society—because they undervalue care work. He contends that care work provides real value to society by making sure people’s needs are met. However, he maintains that one reason care workers are paid so little is because their work is undervalued and viewed as being less important than work that produces goods.

What Is Care Work?

Care work includes tasks such as raising children, looking after the elderly, or watching over the sick. There are also many jobs with care work components, such as when nurses try to manage a patient’s emotions by putting them at ease before a risky surgery. This provides value to society because it improves clients’ quality of life, unlike a desk job where the worker has no real responsibilities. 

Why Are Care Workers Paid So Little?

Graeber argues that society doesn’t view care workers being paid so little as an issue because undervaluing care work has been built into the values of modern society. He points to two cultural causes: sexism and capitalism.

Sexism: Care work has traditionally been done by women and is therefore seen as less valuable in societies with a history of sexism. Graeber contends that these societies presume that women are less valuable and therefore their work must be less valuable too. 

Capitalism: Secondly, Graeber argues that in market-based economies, the value of all work must be quantified and exchanged. If you want to trade one good for another, both of their values need to be translated into quantities of currency. Care workers are paid so little because the value of care work is harder to measure, which makes it more difficult to exchange with other commodities. For example, could you put a price on the value your parents provided by raising you? Probably not. Because you can’t place a number on this value, your culture might not consider it “work” in the conventional sense.

The Difference Between Paid and Unpaid Care Work

In addressing the economic problems caused by undervaluing care work, it helps to distinguish between paid and unpaid care work. Paid care work includes looking after others such as children in daycare, but it can also include domestic work such as cleaning someone else’s house. Unpaid care work typically involves looking after one’s own children, taking care of household chores, or caring for an ailing or elderly family member. This distinction matters because undervaluing leads to different economic consequences in each case. 

Many economists would agree with Graeber that paid care workers are underpaid in proportion to the value they provide. In the U.S., domestic workers are three times as likely to live in poverty as all other classes of workers. Racial and gender disparities also play an important role in the U.S., as care workers are disproportionately women of color.

Unpaid care work also puts a strain on economies because it falls disproportionately on women. This prevents women from participating equally in the workforce, potentially lowering a country’s prosperity. Illustrating this, economists have found a positive correlation between a society’s wealth and the proportion of unpaid care work done by men.

How Undervaluing Care Work Creates Pointless Jobs

Graeber argues that undervaluing care work contributes to the proliferation of pointless jobs in two distinct ways. First, in trying to address the unemployment caused by automation, industrial societies have opted to fund purposeless managerial work instead of valuable care work.

Second, the need to quantify the value provided by professional care workers—such as social workers—has created extra administrative jobs whose role it is to try to measure and document the value of the work done by these care workers. Trying to quantify that which is not easily quantifiable creates extra and unnecessary bureaucratic work, producing new pointless jobs.

Can You Measure the Total Value of Unpaid Care Work?

While trying to attach an exchange value to care work can create extra unnecessary tasks, some economists have argued that trying to estimate the total value of unpaid care work in an economy can have important policy implications. They argue that if policymakers truly understand the economic importance of this work, they would be more likely to invest in it. 

Therefore, a number of economists have tried to put a monetary value on the total care work done in a country. Some have focused on the cost of hiring a nanny or house cleaner to do all the work an unpaid care worker does. Others focus on how care work supports those already in the work force and enables other forms of production. Economists have launched studies in India, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and several other nations. They’ve estimated the total value of unpaid care work at anywhere from 15% to 60% of the total GDP, depending on the country.
Why Are Care Workers Paid So Little: Society to Blame?

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

One thought on “Why Are Care Workers Paid So Little: Society to Blame?

  • September 27, 2023 at 2:10 pm

    I think that care workers should be paid a better hourly rate.Care workers are very important part of life.What would we do without them i know that they are not like a nurse.But they never seem to get mentioned.could i email my local mp to speak to them about this issue.


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