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Writing Prompt, Care as the Work of Citizens
The reflection prompt asks you to write a brief response to the “Care as a Concept” interview
with Professor Joan Tronto, and her essay “Care as the Work of Citizens”
Write a brief response to the following prompt (approx. 500 words, 1-2 pages, double spaced):
In class this week, we considered Tronto’s claim that the professionalization of care undermines
our collective sense of responsibility. The essay “Care as the Work of Citizens” introduces
arguments that Tronto develops in more detail in her book Caring democracy: markets, equality,
and justice. In this book Tronto argues that the substance or core of a democracy is a process
of allocating care & responsibilities (rather than, e.g., processes that ensure a fair distribution of
resources, a just legal system, individual liberty, etc.).
Tronto claims that we should understand the work of care as a collective moral and political
responsibility, one so important as to be a fundamental responsibility of citizenship. She further
argues that taking up a broad conversation about the collective responsibility for care is unlikely
in the United States, particularly given the approach of “privatizing” access to care. We have
seen the question of the privatization of care play out in our debates about health care – e.g.,
should access to health care be a private good, or a public good?
Your prompt for this week is:
How is the concept of care in democracy being tested right now in the US and around the
world? What kind of changes have occurred in society that reflect changing approaches to care
work and responsibility? Do you think that this global pandemic, having so starkly illuminated
both vast social and economic inequity and the value of care work, will have the power to shift
moral and political discourse and debates about care as a moral and political responsibility?
Why or why not?
1. What “global problem” does Joan Tronto say she will examine in the essay, “Care as the Work of
Citizens: a Modest Proposal”?
2. How does Tronto say we would define “citizens” in a world that considered care to be a central
moral & political issue
3. According to Tronto, what new form of social dysfunction was created when second wave
feminism replaced an unjust institution (women marginalized in the private sphere) with a just
institution (“allowing women full and equal access to the workplace”)?
4. What are some of the “care-work” professions Tronto discusses? What is one of the reasons she
gives for why these professions are more open to exploitation?
5. What does Tronto say is the difference between the privatization and socialization of care?
6. What is one of the (several) moral concerns Tronto discusses that relate to the privatization of
7. Tronto states that “Societies conceive of citizens in terms of the contributions that they made to
the society.” What is one example she gives of how historical societies have conceived of
citizens? (Another way to say this is who did these various societies of the past identify and
value as citizens)
8. She argues that in the current United States, the status of Citizen is understood in relation to
one’s status as a worker (the “citizen-as-worker model”). What question does she say the
citizen-as-worker model leaves unanswered or, at least, inadequately answered?
9. Tronto quotes Deborah Stone’s argument that the U.S. needs a “care movement.” What is this
care movement – what would it do, who would it involve/benefit, or what would it aim to
achieve (no need to answer all of these, pick one).
10. In her conclusion, Tronto argues that addressing the global problem of care work is an issue of
justice, but also of “fundamental interests.” Why does she think that it is in all of our
“fundamental interests” to collectively address this problem – even for the wealthiest among us
who can privately pay for the highest levels of care work? Another way to ask this is what price
does she think we all pay by not addressing the moral & political crisis of care work? (she gives
multiple answers to this – you can pick one of them here)
Care as the Work of Citizens
A Modest Proposal
Joan Tronto
are is a fundamental aspect of human life. Care consists of ‘‘everything we do to
Copyright © 2005. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
Ccontinue, repair, and maintain ourselves so that we can live in the world as well
as possible’’ (Fisher and Tronto 1990, 41). Most of us think about care in the
intimate relationships of our lives: care for ourselves and our families and friends. In
its broadest meanings, care is complex and multidimensional: it refers both to the
dispositional qualities we need to care for ourselves and others, such as being
attentive to human needs and taking responsibility to meet such needs, as well as to
the concrete work of caring. To care well requires that both of these elements be
present: a disposition to care and care work. Care thus always involves thinking
about who is responsible for what caring, and about what that responsibility means
(Tronto 1993). Many political theorists, moral philosophers, sociologists, and others
have demonstrated the value of using care as a perspective from which to think
about human life. Despite the burgeoning literature on care, and especially on its
usefulness as a framework to guide moral, political, and policy decisions, though,
critics of the care perspective persist in insisting that there are some questions that
require a more universal perspective from which to think about broader political
and moral questions. To such critics, since care is always (to use Nel Noddings’s
2002 book title) ‘‘starting at home,’’ it is necessarily limited in its ability to make
arguments beyond the most intimate and local level. In response to such critics,
many of us have argued that care is the better perspective because it asks us to think
differently about the nature of the problem and the nature of the solutions. As a
perspective from which to think about social and political life, a care perspective
demands that, as we try to make moral and political judgments, we use the concrete
My thanks to Deborah Kaufman for research assistance in preparing this essay, and to anonymous
reviewers of this manuscript. I am also grateful for comments received at the conference at Washington
University where this essay was first presented and from which this volume grows, and for comments
received at a conference organized by Kari Waerness at the University of Bergen, Norway.
Friedman, Marilyn, ed. 2005. Women and Citizenship. New York: Oxford University Press, Incorporated. Accessed
April 1, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from aul on 2020-04-01 20:35:08.
Care as the Work of Citizens 131
and contextual to support our more general political, social, and moral judgments.1
An ethic of care is in this way a subset of what Margaret Walker has called ‘‘an ethics
of responsibility’’ (Walker 1998). There are critical moral and political questions for
us to ask in determining who is responsible for the ways that care work is done, and
what caring work is done and what caring work is left undone.
In this essay, I would like to consider a global problem, the international
commodification of care work. While my approach is limited, situated in the politics of the United States, nevertheless I hope to argue that the care perspective can
help us to understand not only the nature of the problem but also the nature of the
solution. Thus, the point of this essay is to demonstrate that, despite criticisms that
it is not a universal ethical framework from which to derive principles, a care
perspective can help us to think usefully about how to resolve genuine political
My short solution to the problem of the international commodification of care
is the modest proposal of the title: that we should think of care as a ground for
conferring citizenship. Among other things, care is the work of citizens. In a world
in which we took the centrality of care more seriously, we would define citizens as
people engaged in relationships of care with one another. Care itself would thus
become a possible qualification for citizenship. It might seem, then, that it would
be a very modest proposal to suggest that we adopt such a definition of citizenship;
in fact, we shall see that it requires a radical rethinking of political values for the
United States. I shall first try to describe why this problem emerges, and then consider
how to solve it.
Copyright © 2005. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
The Problem: The Care Crisis
One aspect of Thomas More’s Utopia, written in 1516, seems especially disturbing.
Thomas More resolved the question of care work by assigning the ‘‘dehumanizing’’
work of Utopia, such as cleaning up, taking care of children, and slaughtering
animals, to slaves. Such slaves would come from the small criminal element within
the society itself and from abroad:
Another type of slave is the working-class foreigner who, rather than live in wretched
poverty at home, volunteers for slavery in Utopia. Such people are treated with
respect, and with almost as much kindness as Utopian citizens, except that they’re
made to work harder, because they’re used to it. If they want to leave the country,
which doesn’t often happen, they’re perfectly free to do so, and receive a small
gratuity. (More [1516] 1965, 103)
If people are willing to volunteer for ‘‘slavery,’’ is it a moral and political
problem? Since the eighteenth century, virtually all political philosophers have
1. A number of scholars have written on the value of care as a kind of political perspective; see, inter
alia, Folbre 1994, 2001, Schwarzenbach 1996, Sevenhuijsen 1998, Stone 2000, White 2000, Waerness
Friedman, Marilyn, ed. 2005. Women and Citizenship. New York: Oxford University Press, Incorporated. Accessed
April 1, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from aul on 2020-04-01 20:35:08.
132 Practices of Citizenship in Culture and Civil Society
agreed that slavery so affronts human dignity that no one can justly be enslaved,
even if they so ‘‘volunteer.’’ Perhaps More’s description of such foreign workingclass workers willing to do the drudgery as slaves will shock our modern consciences, but throughout the industrialized world, there is an increasing reliance upon the same solution that More created. Although care workers are no
longer slaves, care work does not automatically make someone a citizen who is
not a citizen to begin with. They are workers for whom work is not enough to
make them into citizens, and who only enjoy the partial benefits of what Rhacel
Parreñas (2001) calls ‘‘partial citizenship.’’
How did this situation come into existence? Why does it persist? To answer
this question, we need to consider the current crisis in care in the United States, a
fateful choice about how to proceed, and a political strategy to make the more
moral but politically unlikely prospect come to pass.
The Care Crisis
Copyright © 2005. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
Not-So-Simple Justice
The traditional association of caring with women rested on a social order that
excluded women from many parts (or all) of the public sphere. Women (and for
that matter slaves, servants, and often working-class people), as well as care activities, were relegated outside of public life. One of the great accomplishments of the
second wave of feminism was to break the caste barriers that excluded women from
the public sphere. As Judith Stacey has argued, it was not only the push from
feminists but also the pull from the new economy that led to the great victory of
second wave feminism (Stacey 1990).
Eliminating caste barriers may seem to be a matter of simple justice. Increasingly, though, I think that we must reflect seriously upon the political economy of
injustice. There is no such thing as a matter of simple justice. Unjust institutions
serve social functions, as do just institutions. The result is that if one simply changes
unjust institutions without paying attention to the functions that they performed in
society, then in eliminating injustice one also may create new forms of social dislocation and dysfunction. Allowing women full and equal access to the workplace,
second wave feminism contributed to such an outcome by removing women as the
primary caregivers for nuclear families. Failing to acknowledge how these two pieces
are connected together, feminists have not fully addressed the moral and political
consequences of their success.
The Care Worker Crisis
That Americans now face a crisis in care cannot be denied. Here are some obvious
pieces of that crisis.
1. Workers now work too much. Globalization is sometimes understood in
terms of the mobility of capitalism. We can also understand it, however, in terms of
the ways that it represents a new kind of capitalism. David Harvey argues, for
Friedman, Marilyn, ed. 2005. Women and Citizenship. New York: Oxford University Press, Incorporated. Accessed
April 1, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from aul on 2020-04-01 20:35:08.
Copyright © 2005. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
Care as the Work of Citizens 133
example, that while modern capitalism has always controlled workers in space and
time in order to exploit their labor, postmodern capitalism operates on smaller
margins of exploitation. This new capitalism must take advantage of a profound
time-space compression. He observes that the general speedup in the turnover times
of capital accentuates volatility and ephemerality of commodities and capital.
‘‘The volatility, of course, makes it extremely difficult to engage in any long-term
planning. Indeed, learning to play the volatility right is now just as important as
accelerating turnover time’’ (Harvey 1990, 286–287). In order to play such volatility
right, workers need to be available, flexible, and willing to bend their schedules
to match the requirements of global capital. Intensive labor in the ‘‘new economy’’ that has as its primary function to take advantage of fluctuation in capital
requires that workers be available all the time (‘‘24/7/365,’’ as the new locution
puts it).
A second and related effect of globalized, restless capital is that it makes it
possible for capitalism to make greater demands on the physical time of those in
the service-oriented working class than was possible even for industrial workers.
There was a natural limit to the demands of industrial work on workers: at some
point their physical bodies became too battered, weary, and spent for them to be
effective workers. The obvious physical toll upon them also meant that workers
could and did recognize and organize around their physical needs for rest and
leisure (indeed, such a right is included in article 24 of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights).
Workers who are constantly on the move, always available, have less distance
from work, not more. ‘‘Knowledge workers’’ are working more and in more different locales than before (Gould Ellen and Hempstead 2002). One of the leading
arguments made for worker flex-time is that it allows workers to do more work (Hill,
Hawkins, et al. 2001). And work they do; the average American family added four
weeks of paid work in the 1980s and continued to work more throughout the 1990s
(Francis 2001).
2. The other side of this trend is that, while knowledge workers spend more of
their time working, a huge gap opens in the care work that they used to do (especially
for women but also for men). The United States faces a care worker crisis, in
traditional caring occupations such as teaching and nursing, and in rapidly expanding care fields as well, such as nursing and day-care work (Pear 2002; Perrera
2002; Schlinkmann 2002; Trapps 2001). Ninety percent of the nursing homes in the
United States have inadequate numbers of workers (Pear 2002). We are often warned
of the coming crisis in teacher shortages.2
3. It is no surprise, either, that these occupations reflect shortages, because,
among other factors, they offer relatively less attractive places to work. Care work
is the core of the ‘‘pink collar ghetto’’; traditional women’s jobs are less well paid
and less well supported than are other occupations. In addition, there are several
aspects of care work that make care workers especially vulnerable to exploitation
2. By 2011, the shortfall nationwide is expected to reach two million teachers, with nearly 300,000
positions in California’s public schools going unfilled (Trapps 2001).
Friedman, Marilyn, ed. 2005. Women and Citizenship. New York: Oxford University Press, Incorporated. Accessed
April 1, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from aul on 2020-04-01 20:35:08.
Copyright © 2005. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
134 Practices of Citizenship in Culture and Civil Society
in this setting. One set of such vulnerabilities was discussed at length by Diemut
Bubeck: care work is always subject to exploitation (Bubeck 1995). In the first
place, because care work requires the creation and nurturance of relationships, it
is difficult for care workers to pull themselves out of their work situation when
they are being treated poorly and not lose entirely the sense and value of their
work. Furthermore, because care workers often work in ‘‘private’’ locations or in
the informal economy, they are subject to exploitation and not protected by labor
law (Bakan and Stasiulis 1997; Chang 2000; Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001; Romero
4. The end result of the confluence of all of these factors is that care work is
becoming an imported commodity (see Parreñas 2001; Trapps 2001). The care crisis
is the obverse of capital mobility, which is matched by labor mobility. Third
World/Southern world workers are now moving into the ‘‘First World’’ and the rest
of the developing world to do care work. Care labor is the new basic raw material
imported from the developing world to the developed world, as Rhacel Perreñas
observes. Parreñas observes that ‘‘designated export-based nations in the global
labor market such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka . . . export the
bodies of their citizens to induce foreign currency into their economies’’ (51).
Throughout the globe, the rise in women’s immigration to developed countries
(and women are now the majority of illegal immigrants in the United States) is a
result of the need for someone to do the caring work that was once done by
members of the home population. Some of these workers are professionals—for
example, nurses—but many of them are unskilled domestic workers. In many
countries outside the United States, by the way, these circumstances are not always
better and are often worse. These workers, especially those who work as domestics,
are treated extremely badly, as little better than chattel. Their immigration status is
often different from the status of other immigrants (for example, in Canada, see
Cohen 2000) and at the point at which they cease being useful as domestic servants
(for example, by becoming pregnant) they are subject to immediate deportation (in
Singapore, for example, pregnant women are deportable, even if their pregnancy
was caused by their employer (Bakan and Stasiulis 1997).
Fateful Directions
The fateful directions that will resolve this crisis depend in part upon how Americans think about the crisis. On the one hand, if Americans think of the crisis in care
workers as primarily an issue of scarce resources and their allocation, Americans will
come to one set of conclusions. On the other hand, if Americans think …
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George Washington University

Concept of Care

Care in Democracy

Professor Tronto

rims of labor


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