What about the Universal Caregiver as our basic paradigm?

As the full-time mother of two young children with a third on the way – all of us largely dependent on my breadwinner husband – I find myself in the middle of a cultural debate about women, caregiving and paid work that seems to put me on the losing side.

In recent years, successive Australian governments, both Liberal (conservative) and Labour, have changed social security in a direction that makes it clear I should be out in the paid workforce, not indulging in family building.

In 2012 Labour, under a female Prime Minister, introduced the Fair Incentives to Work Act, which transferred welfare payments from the existing parents’ allowance to the more meager one of Newstart, an employment program. This would, in theory, encourage parents (mothers) to gain more financial independence by driving them into the workforce. In Julia Gillard’s words, “I’m a big believer in the dignity that comes from work.”

The model mum as employee

There was just one problem. She was referring to paid work, whilst ignoring the fact the majority of recipients of the Parenting Payment–who would be most drastically penalized by the new policy with a $180 cut a fortnight– were already working. But these were mostly in low-paying jobs that could fit around their parental responsibilities. In practice this forced vulnerable families, like households with single mothers, even further into poverty.

Under a Liberal-led government in 2016, tax “reform” was to further penalize lower-income families, especially those on single-incomes. These families would lose about $1,700 a year from the existing Tax Benefit, while women who had worked before having babies (i.e. who were coming from a double-income household) were rewarded with more financial benefits after the birth. The message was loud and clear, “the model [Prime Minister Tony]Abbott mum is now an employee, not a homemaker.”

Australian author, cultural critic and mother, Anne Manne, has a lot to say on this subject, and has some good ideas about how mothers, who still remain the primary caregivers of their children, might be better protected from the pervasive attitude that only paid work counts.

Farewell maternalism, welcome Universal Breadwinner

The current economic paradigm is what Manne calls the “cult of the Universal Breadwinner.” The virtues espoused in this framework are total financial independence and self-sufficiency. US sociologist Ann Orloff calls it “a farewell to maternalism” as it minimizes government assistance for mothers; women are expected to enter the workforce under this model, with an allowance for brief leave around childbirth.

Yet, Manne declares:

“This differs from any feminist program in that it carries with it an embedded yet undeclared assumption that women will somehow still provide, or have the financial resources to pay and care for children, the elderly, the sick and those with a disability. The neoliberal state intends to get two roles for the price of one.”

Manne thinks the heart of the matter is a narrowed perception of what feminism is. She writes that, “only one aspect of liberal feminism– emphasizing careers and the right to paid work – is compatible with the pro-market ideology, and has become feminism’s representative ‘voice.’ Yet feminism is a multi-voiced social movement.”

Manne pithily sums up the effect this has on mothers as “more like a road to exhaustion than emancipation.” This dilemma was powerfully evoked by a short film recently released by The Guardian; musing on what a modern-day Nora, from Ibsen’s classic play, A Doll’s House, might look like.

‘Lifters’ and ‘leaners’ – but who is doing the heavy lifting?

The Universal Breadwinner mentality is evident across a range of Australian politicians. Ken Henry, head of the Treasury department under both Liberal and Labour governments, suggested “mothers needed to get into the workforce, so they could ‘lead lives of value.’”

And it was a former government treasurer, Liberal Joe Hockey, who bifurcated the nation into two categories, the “lifters” and “leaners”. The lifters were those in the workforce, the inference being anybody not earning money was sponging on the system.

The popular media espouses a similar attitude. Last year for example, the Daily Telegraph published a column titled “It Should Be Illegal to Be a Stay-at-home Mum.”

Yet in 2014, The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimated the value of all unpaid work to be $434 billion, or, 43.5% of the GDP. Manne makes the observation that the care of the vulnerable, children, sick, disabled, and elderly, is a fundamental, usually unpaid, service to society, though not always compatible with paid work “as it is currently organized.”

This, she says, is the “immutable truth that the ideal of the Universal Breadwinner leaves out,” rendering it “fatally flawed” and leading to the popular understanding that “what constitutes legitimate citizenship has become too closely tied to paid work.” Feminism too, Manne adds, has become too much the handmaiden to neoliberal ideology.

An alternative paradigm: the Universal Caregiver

Her solution is simple, but radical. And worth pondering. She calls for the valorization of unwaged activities, and the replacement of “the current sacralization of paid work” with a new “Universal Caregiver” paradigm. This would aim at the recognition as well as equal redistribution of care-giving roles to make visible unpaid work, and to have it regarded with more respect.

As Manne playfully illustrates, ultimately we should encourage a social ethic in which an interviewee should be ashamed to have an absence of volunteer work or care-giving experience on their CV.

What then becomes of a genuine incentive to work, let alone the hallowed goal of financial independence? Manne points out that “dependency” is not the inevitable alternative to independence – an obsession rather than a realistic goal. The ideal would be a spirit of interdependence, which is “the true human condition” and “a matter of pride, not shame.”

She points to places like Sweden as a model nation for sharing caregiver roles between men and women. Its policies and protections grant more financial rights and better career structures to part-time workers, and rights to work shorter days to workers with children under the age of eight.

Those who suspect this to be some modern rendition of communist ideals must agree either that every monetary valuation of labour should be abolished, or else that all caregiver roles should be paid work. Yet Manne’s analysis suggests neither.

Neither is she making a feminist case for equal economic benefits for women. In fact, she is critical of the reduction of women’s equality to a battle to be a part of the professional workforce – an  argument that is pitting women in professional careers against stay-at-home mums.

It cannot be said Manne’s solution is one of modest proportions. It would require a complete overhaul of the current zeitgeist surrounding waged work, unwaged work, and the source of human value and dignity. But it is a proposition, I repeat, that is worth pondering.

Veronika Winkels writes from Melbourne.

Reference: Manne, Anne. “Mothers and the Quest for Social Justice: From ‘The Universal Breadwinner’ to ‘The Universal Caregiver’ Regime.” In Dangerous Ideas About Mothers, edited by Camilla Nelson, and Rachel Robertson, 17-34. Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2018.

Veronika Winkels

Veronika Winkels is married with four young children. She majored in History and History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne before becoming a freelance writer, published poet, and...