In August, I attended the 2007 Carework Conference in NYC, an event organized by the Carework Network, a collaboration of researchers, professionals, and activists engaged with caregiving as a social issue. In the course of the day's discussion, Nancy Folbre (author of The Invisible Heart) remarked that advocates and carework scholars often talk about "the caring society," but we've never actually defined what a caring society is.
I've been thinking about Nancy's comment -- and my initial reaction is that a caring society is the opposite of whatever America is today, after twenty-five years of neoconservative assault on the spirit and substance of the nation's social welfare policies. But, you know, that's a pretty cynical point of view. In fact, I believe the majority of Americans are good-natured -- we care about our families, our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, our communities, children with rare forms of cancer, the troops in Iraq, the homeless, the hungry, disaster victims, the fate of the planet, endangered species, abandoned pets -- there seems to be no limit to the people, creatures, and things we're compelled to care about. On the other hand, 47 million Americans are without health care coverage, more than 35 million experienced food insecurity last year, and 86 million US workers do not have a single paid sick day they can use to care for an ill child. And, of course, the United States has the highest rate of child poverty among affluent nations.
Perhaps on an unconscious level, most of us understand that our personal well-being is inextricably linked with the well-being of other living things with which we share our world. (We even have a label for people who lack this innate sense of connection: sociopathic.) But as regular folks living in societies with complex political and economic cultures, we have limited power and resources to correct conditions that put some families and communities at greater risk for hardship, exclusion, and unnecessary suffering. So we concentrate our caring efforts on protecting and helping those closest to us and, under special circumstances, we extend caring gestures to those beyond our intimate circle (we call this impulse "good will"). There are caring people in every society -- but not all societies are caring societies.
Describing the ideal qualities of a caring society is a momentous project -- maybe even a subversive act -- and I can provide only a rudimentary sketch. But the first thing I'd say is that caring societies aren't utopias -- they don't eliminate the inherent risks of the human condition, or the potential for bad actors to do harm. Perhaps the biggest difference between caring societies and uncaring ones is that caring societies demonstrate a collective commitment to reducing chronic disparities in well-being regardless of the perceived cause, but particularly when historic patterns suggest that disparities are reinforced by oppression, exploitation, discrimination, and unequal access to services, opportunities, and resources. Caring societies can't obliterate racism, sexism, xenophobia, crime, poverty, violence, war, or the tendency of capitalist systems to skew toward imbalances of power. But they do take action to minimize human suffering and inequality of outcomes produced by the social environment, without infringing on human rights (more on that subject, later).
In other words, caring societies favor systems that foster social inclusion and human development over systems that concentrate privilege, wealth, and political power among an elite minority. This doesn't mean everyone in a caring society gets to live like a millionaire. It means that in caring societies, the state takes realistic action to assure the benefits of economic and technological progress -- and the burdens of economic downturns -- are broadly shared, and that everyone has a genuine opportunity to flourish to the best of his or her ability.
Discussions about care and equality typically focus on social policy. But from my perspective, the core of caring societies is ideological -- that is, caring societies build on a specific way of thinking about what exists, what is good, and what is possible. Beyond a baseline orientation toward mutual obligation (as opposed to the glorification of hyperindividualism), political and economic cultures in caring societies are guided by the principle that caregiving is a primary human activity which sustains human life, promotes collective well-being, and is necessary for the growth and stability of functional communities. Care is a social structure as well as a social activity, and systems that produce a shortage of care, or rely on exploitation and gender inequality to assure an adequate supply of care, create predictable social problems.
The evolution of political and economic culture in the United States has produced a selective shortage of health care, for example -- some Americans have excellent care, while others have less than they need or want -- and exceptionally high levels of income inequality. A related outcome is that the US has very high rates of infant and maternal mortality compared to other wealthy countries, but not all populations of mothers and babies are equally at risk (rates are highest among African Americans and Native Americans). From the racial composition of the incarcerated population to disparities in disease-related mortality, there are multiple indications that the US social environment tends to reproduce inequality and produce selective shortages of care. As it happens, our organizing ideologies and economic mythology are consistent with this result -- in fact, some Americans believe that vastly unequal life outcomes are a natural, inevitable, and morally acceptable condition of highly productive societies. Not coincidentally, the people in the best position to exploit this view are economically and culturally privileged.