Caregivers, we see you.

My son ran into my Zoom room last week and yelled, “Fart! Poop!”  It was no big deal, but it is part of the reality that we who are caregivers constantly manage.  In truth, he needed my attention.  He has been home since March 13—over four months—playing way too much Fortnite, watching a billion seasons of Naruto, and wishing he could play with his friends.  So now I’m his friend.  We have a family poker night and we play Zoom pictionary with his grandparents.  But we’re no substitute for other 11-year-old kids, and the computer is certainly no substitute for school or summer camp.

I’m trying to get a paper done this week.  I haven’t started learning how to teach online, even though that’s what I’ll be doing in a little over a month.  I have another abstract due in two days and a chapter expected before the end of summer.  Three students just asked me to read their proposals, and one of my students needs help as she struggles with her mental health.  My other service obligations have me designing web pages, sending emails, assessing award packages, and guiding a mentoring group.  This is all recognizable, right?  It’s our job.

So what’s gonna give?  My paper?  My son’s math ability?  Our collective sanity?  Has anybody eaten a vegetable this week?

The truth is, as a caregiver I have it easy.  My children are old enough to pursue their own interests for considerable periods each day without my intervention, and I have a wildly supportive partner.  And tenure.  Lots of faculty members have kids who are younger and need much more direct (read: constant) care.  And because of the overlapping life-stage demands of family and academia, which sociologists call “greedy institutions,” those faculty members with young children are likely also either pre-tenure or in precarious contract or part-time positions. Other faculty members are “sandwiched” between caring for children and caring for aging parents, which is challenging even when nobody is at risk of contracting a deadly viral infection at the grocery store. These people are tired.  

COVID-19 has provided yet another opportunity for us in the US to grapple with the fact that people need care.  Children need care, and it is women in families who disproportionately provide it.  People with illnesses need care, and it is women in health occupations who disproportionately provide it.  Parents, partners, neighbors, cousins, students, friends — they all need care.  Cisgender and trans women who head their families solo or are in straight relationships bear the brunt of this care work.  This gendered pattern of care, I know from both study and experience, is felt acutely by women in academia.  

One of the actions the George Washington University Faculty Association, GWUFA, has taken to support caregivers in our ranks is to circulate a petition demanding that faculty be able to choose for themselves—not beg the administration—whether they will teach in-person or online this fall.  

Looking more broadly across the university, GWUFA has also asked faculty—especially including those with tenure and those in administration—to block any layoffs of workers anywhere in the university.  This includes the housekeepers who are charged with keeping classrooms and offices sanitary, IT personnel who keep our technology working, and the staff who often serve on the frontlines of each office on campus.  Employees who have caregiving responsibilities are in a particularly precarious position when their employer claims—erroneously—that layoffs are necessary here

GWUFA also has its ear to the ground seeking resources to directly address the gendered inequities that can arise from our university’s failure to fully integrate workers’ caregiving responsibilities into our organizational plans.  One quick no-brainer:  We should be paid for learning how to teach online!  It’s work, and we’re all doing it, for free, even though the caregivers we need to hire so we can do it are not free.  On issues of productivity, we applaud the university for granting year-long extensions to faculty members’ tenure clocks if needed, but we continue to be discouraged by the administration’s failure to grant equivalent protections to contract faculty members.  We support the Aspire Alliance’s recent call to acknowledge and affirm a work slow-down while we grapple with the pandemic, and to thoughtfully weigh the levels of productivity among those with and without caregiving responsibilities.  Specific people, such as Pandemic Response Faculty Fellows, should be appointed (and rewarded) for attending to the potentially disproportionate gender, race, and caregiving impacts of any actions the administration takes during this period.  We also recommend that GW value and honor the extraordinary forms of service our faculty are providing right now, and to use this as an opportunity to acknowledge and reward the extra burden of service that faculty of color and white women, in both tenured and non-tenure-track positions, regularly over-provide for the university. 

And finally, let’s not pretend to be “strong,” either as individuals or as a university.  What we’re going through is hard, and “strength” does not prevent COVID-19 from spreading through ventilation systems, nor does it play tic-tac-toe with my son while I’m supposed to be in a HyFlex webinar.  It is wisdom and clarity we need to integrate our needs as human beings with our scholarly responsibilities, and a university should be well-positioned to provide those.  Until we see some semblance of those characteristics from GW’s leadership, GWUFA would like to make sure that all the caregivers in our community know:  We see you, and we are fighting with and for you.


(Image Credit: CNN)

The United States steals $450 billion a year from elder caregivers

Earlier this month, AARP launched a new ad campaign meant to address the situation of elder caregiving in the United States. The campaign is based on thousands of accounts, and on longstanding research, such as the report that AARP released last year, “Valuing the Invaluable: The Growing Contributions and Costs of Family Caregiving, 2011 Update.”

Much of that report is, sadly, unsurprising. Caregivers are largely unpaid, largely family members, generally overworked and overtaxed, isolated, at a loss, often confused emotionally as the stress mounts. As a consequence of all of this, and more, caregivers generally suffer declining and deteriorating health. The majority of these careworkers are women.

Here’s the news, and it’s staggering: “The estimated economic value of their unpaid contributions was approximately $450 billion in 2009, up from an estimated $375 billion in 2007.” As AARP poignantly notes, that’s not only a 21 percent increase in a mere two years. $450 billion is also “more than the total 2009 sales of Wal-Mart, America’s largest company, and more than the combined sales that year of the three largest publicly held auto companies (Toyota, Ford, Daimler).”

The stories told by individual caregivers are important, as are their lives. They are crucial, and we must listen to them and, even more, learn to act on what they’re saying and what we’re hearing. At the same time, those stories beg to be contextualized. In one year, the national economy stole $450 billion from US residents. Whether that labor was a labor of love or a labor of obligation, the value of that labor was stolen. And, as the years 2007 – 2009 demonstrate, it’s a growing market with a growing profit margin.

Caring Across Generations is one answer, an important and even crucial answer, to the problem. Of equal importance is re-creating a State that doesn’t regard its citizens and residents as clients and customers. In this year of high political rhetoric, one hears a great deal about the United States being `a wealthy nation.’ Wealth built on the predatory extraction of $45 billion dollars in a single year is not wealth. It’s poverty. Ask the women who care for their elders; ask the elders who are majority women as well. Ask yourself.

(Image Credit:

Seven billion. Who cares?

According to the United Nations, the world population reached 7 billion today. Ok, maybe it’s really tomorrow or the next day, maybe it was yesterday. The exact date is somewhat beside the point. The point is 7 billion. Maybe the child is a girl-child named Danica May Camacho, born today in the Philippines. Maybe the child is a girl-child named Nargis Kumar, born in India. The exact child is also somewhat beside the point, although the choice of gender for symbols is telling.

Seven billion is a big number, difficult to visualize. Of course, two centuries ago, when the population was a `mere’ 1 billion, that also was a big number, difficult to visualize. In 1930, when the population reached 2 billion, in 1960 when it reached 3 billion, in 1975 when it reached 4 billion, in 1987 when it reached 5 billion, in 1999 when it reached 6 billion, each time the number was a big number, difficult to visualize. That means in less than 40 years, the world population had doubled. Clearly, `we’ are not very good at numbers.

Some will tell you this is largely a story of India and China. Others will note that, of the continents, Africa has the fastest population growth. Of course, the whole of Africa has fewer people than either China or India, but it’s growing. Others will talk about inequality and resources. Geographic inequalities between people born, raised, living in different parts of the world. Inequalities between and among generations, between and among genders as well.

These are important issues to discuss. So is this. Who cares and who will care for the billions? Already, we know that the world population is growing older … quickly. Every state in the United States, has prepared a program to “Ride the Age Wave,” mostly by coining groaningly clever phrases and quandaries, such as “The Age Wave:  Silver Tsunami or Golden Wave of Opportunity?

Who will care for the growing global population of elders, the growing scattered populations of children, the growing population? Care workers. Child care providers. Elder care providers. Nannies. Maids. Housekeepers. Family members, more often than not unpaid. Women. Women of color. Women from “somewhere else.” And girls. Women and girls. Women and girls who are too often described as silent. Women and girls who are too often described as invisible. They aren’t silent, and they aren’t invisible. We’re simply not listening or seeing.

Care work is systematically dropped out of development programs and public policy debates. Care workers are systematically excluded from any consideration or consultation concerning … care. The ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers is a step towards correcting that situation. So are campaigns like the Caring Across Generations Campaign, launched by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and their allies, in the United States.

Another step would be global conversation. Try it. The next time someone says or writes, “The world population is …”, answer with a question. “Who cares?” And then, together, answer the question.


(Infographic Credit: NPR / UN Population Division)

But tell me, where do the children live?

Maria Olvera with Valory, one of the two grandchildren she is raising in Altadena, Calif.

Where do children live?

Some children live at home. Sometimes, the families are their own extended families. Often they are their grandparents’ homes. Sometimes the parents have been taken by illness. Other times, the market has insisted that mothers and fathers travel extraordinary distances and stay away for long periods of time. And sometimes the parents have been deported.

Other children live in family homes that are worksites and worse. These children might be domestic workers, and they live as strangers in their own domiciles.

In Burkina Faso, for example, children, especially girls, work as street vendors, or hawkers, and as domestic workers.  Legally, domestic work is considered “light work”, and so children officially can begin working in households at the age of 15. In fact, children, mostly girls, begin as young as 7. Almost half of all children in Burkina Faso work, and proportionately the girls outnumber the boys.

The local Red Cross has a child labor project that is trying to help child domestic workers. Other local NGOs also are trying to help child domestic workers. How? The NGOs are offering girls training in cleaning and housekeeping, and, occasionally, reading, writing, and sewing.  The Red Cross is sending stern, `blunt’ text messages to government officials, employers, traditional leaders, teachers, business owners and housewives.  Here’s one example: ““Employers: domestics have the same rights as your children. Stop under-paying them; stop subjecting them to mistreatment, sexual violence, and long hours”.

Who are the children? They are typically described as children “from rural areas where there are few work opportunities”, and so they are sent, or some would say trafficked, to the cities, in this case Ouagadougou or Bobo-Dioulosso. They have the same rights as your children? Hardly. `Your children’ go to school. `Your children’ inhabit days and lives that aren’t measured by wage scales and work opportunities. `Your children’ are … your children, and their opportunities are the opportunities of childhood. These children are not `your children’. If they were, their situation would not be described in terms of lack of work but rather lack of school.

But tell me, where do the children live?

In the United States, one of every ten children lives with their grandparents. Close to three million children live with a grandparent or grandparents.  Close to three million grandparents are the primary caregivers to the children living with them.  Of the three million grandparents, 62%, or a little less then two million, are women. While the primary caregiver grandparents are disproportionately African American and Latina, the numbers are increasing, rapidly, among White grandparents as well. Of the primary caregiver grandparents, 65% are either poor or near-poor.

This development is considered a social trend. For Latina grandmothers, it is often complicated by another `social trend’: deportation. For example, Maria Olvera takes care of two of her grandchildren. Their mother, Maria Reyes, was deported, returned to Mexico, where she now lives, on the border in Tijuana. Their father died in 2008. Maria Reyes has four children. The other two stay with an aunt nearby. The four siblings come together daily, to encourage a sense of family.  Meanwhile, Maria Olvera is herself undocumented. A survivor of domestic abuse, she helped authorities locate and prosecute her abuser. Now she waits to see if she can obtain a U visa. Meanwhile, she has little or no formal rights or claims to the children.

And if Maria Olvera looks around, she will already know another `social trend’ that legal scholars are just beginning to discover and document: the deportation of grandparent caregivers, and in particular of grandmothers. Parents gone, grandparents under threat, where do you think the children live? Limbo.

The illegal but common child domestic workers of Burkina Faso, the grandchildren of undocumented grandparent primary caregivers in the United States, live formally, officially … nowhere. They are shadows. As nations design and implement so-called austerity programs, the world of shadow children expands as it grows more thickly populated. In the United Kingdom, for example, it is anticipated that, as a result of so-called austerity budget cuts, 300,000 children will be shoved into poverty. Like a bird, child poverty is set to soar.

But tell me, where will the children live?

(Photo Credit: Sarah Reingewirtz / San Gabriel Valley News Group /  El Nuevo Sol)

The babies’ give-and-take

Hillary Clinton visits Angola this week. The caregivers of Angola, the United States, and the world haunt her mission as they haunt this age.

Isn’t it curious that those who care for others can be called caretakers or caregivers? A caregiver is “a person, typically either a professional or close relative, who looks after a child, elderly person, invalid, etc.; a carer”. A caretaker is “one who takes care of a thing, place, or person; one put in charge of anything”. This explains why caregivers are mostly women, underpaid or not paid at all, who look after others in need: children, the sick, the elderly, you, me. This explains why there are caretaker governments and why there are no caregiver governments or States.

In Ireland, a caretaker is “a person put in charge of a farm from which the tenant has been evicted”. Angola is evicting thousands of people right now. 3000 family households were just bulldozed on the outskirts of Lusaka, to make way for gated condominium `communities’ and shopping malls: “`They arrived at around 3am,’ explained Rosa, a pregnant mother of five who has lived for three years in the area of two neighbouring informal settlements known as Baghdad and Iraq. “First came the police, and then the machines and they just started to knock down the houses. There was no warning, we had no choice but to leave because of all the police so we just grabbed what we could and then watched as they pulled down our homes,” said the 29-year-old.”

What happens to Rosa and her five children, what happens to that future child of hers, if it survives its birth? What happens to Rosa, now homeless, when she goes into childbirth? The maternal mortality roulette is now firmly stacked against her. And what happens then to the five or six kids?

Maki knows. Maki is a fictional character in “Porcupine”, the title story of Jane Bennett’s collection, Porcupine. Maki is Black, Zimbabwean, lesbian, a writer and student living in South Africa, and she knows: “The statistics have been stable for centuries; the babies of the caretakers died with much more frequency than those in the caretakers’ care. It’s not a riddle.”

Rosa and her children, the women, men, children of Baghdad and Iraq, in the southlands of Lusaka, they must just die. If that’s economic and social progress, if their eviction and death is part of community formation, then Angola is a proper Caretaker State.

And Angola is not alone. We are living in a Caretaker Era, on a globe of evictions in the name of progress, in a world of caretakers’ children dying. The statistics have been stable.

Take the United States, a wealthy country. With all its wealth, the United States health care system is “one of the worst of all the industrialized nations.” In 2000, the World Health Organization stopped ranking national health care systems, because the data, they said, became too complex. In their 2000 assessment, of 191 nation states, the United States ranked 37th, and this despite spending a higher portion of its gross domestic product on health than any other country.

So, what happens to the Rosa’s of the United States? What happens to their children?

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development Health Data 2009 report, “Most OECD countries have enjoyed large gains in life expectancy over the past decades.  In the United States, life expectancy at birth increased by 8.2 years between 1960 and 2006, which is less than the increase of almost 15 years in Japan, or 9.4 years in Canada. In 2006, life expectancy in the United States stood at 78.1 years, almost one year below the OECD average of 79.0 years….Infant mortality rates in the United States have fallen greatly over the past few decades, but not as much as in most other OECD countries.  It stood at 6.7 deaths per 1 000 live births in 2006, above the OECD average of 4.9.”

If Rosa is a caregiver in the United States, she’s an underpaid woman of color. She’s Black, Latina, Native American, Asian. What happens to Rosa, to her children, to her next child, if she’s, say, Black?  “Black infants in the United States are more than twice as likely as white infants to die in the first year of life. In New York City, infant mortality rates were 3 times higher for black infants than for white infants in 2001. Neonatal deaths, that is, deaths that occur within 28 days after delivery, account for nearly two thirds of all infant deaths. Similar to the racial disparities in infant mortality rates, black neonates are more than twice as likely to die, compared with white neonates.”

These deaths are called amenable mortality. That means they are considered amenable to health care. That means, they could have been prevented. They could be prevented. They can be prevented. In the United States, the worst industrialized nation in reducing amenable mortality, Rosa’s death will be another `amenable mortality’. That of her children as well.

Prior to the recession, in the United States, women were foregoing health care, which is like saying that caregivers have been foregoing living in gated communities and shopping at upscale malls. Around the world, women are `foregoing’ needed health care. Rosa is, her five children are, her impending sixth child is. They are foregoing housing, health care, education, water, food. Whether Rosa lives in Angola or in the United States is irrelevant. She is meant to die, her children are meant to die. The statistics have been stable for centuries. It’s not a riddle.