Precarity and Care

Nancy Folbre
3 September 2023

Far from opposites, care and precarity are deeply entwined both etymologically and historically. Now, the increasing precarity created by current labor markets fosters a higher demand for care.

Precarious employment is proliferating  even in Nordic countries, and, not surprisingly, employees providing care services are particularly vulnerable. When I was invited to give a presentation at a conference on this topic in Helsinki, I questioned the general links between care and precarity, wondering why the letters of care are embedded in the word precarious. Here’s a clue in the  etymology: 

precarious (adj.)

1640s, a legal word, “held through the favor of another,” from Latin precarius “depending on favor, pertaining to entreaty, obtained by asking or praying.”

Economists use “precarious” to describe a regime in which deregulated labor markets give rise to insecure conditions in which pay is low, social protections are minimized, and ability to plan a coherent future is compromised.

The adjective has morphed into a noun, precarity, describing not only the global labor market, but also a more general inability to plan for a coherent future, as in floods and fires, droughts and famines, wars and despots, and desperate migrants left to drown.

The low “favor” of others, and the “culture of uncare” are surely implicated. Yet precarity is also fostered by ignorance, a myopic tendency to seek easily-measured short-term gains at the expense of long-term costs that are more difficult to measure and will (it is easy to hope) be paid by someone else.

Many employers face incentives to reduce wages and benefits in order to increase their profits. If the resulting increases in worker turnover and declines in service quality hurt consumers, they may not have enough sovereignty to effectively respond. An iconic example: When the unemployment rate in the U.S. has gone down, mortality in nursing homes has increased due to staffing shortages, because elder care workers have fled in search of better jobs. 

The larger effects of precarity, however, probably lie in the effect of economic stress on workers, their families, and their communities, a reduction in their health and well-being and a degradation of their capabilities. These negative spillovers cascade in ways that lead to increased “deaths of despair,” mortality resulting from suicide, drug overdoses, or alcohol abuse.  

In 1950, William Kapp published an under-appreciated book, The Social Costs of Private Enterprise, that provides a useful template for exploring parallels between the costs of physical and social climate change.

He defined social costs as “all those harmful consequences and damages which third persons or the community sustain as a result of the productive process, and for which private entrepreneurs are not easily held accountable” (p. 14). 

Economists prefer the term “externality,” which Kapp rejected because it implies, as James Swaney and Martin Evers put it in in 1989 article in the Journal of Economic Issues, that “uncompensated side effects are exceptional rather than pervasive, incidental rather than systemic.” 

Plenty of recent research explores the impact of economic shocks and increasing inequality on public health. In addition to Case and Deaton’s Deaths of Despair, my favorites are David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu’s The Body Economic, and Richard Wilkson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.

Care researchers would do well to devote more attention to precarity. 

The cover picture is designed by Nancy Folbre.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

One comment on "Precarity and Care"

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    Eva Kittay

    Nancy. This is my paper connecting Precarity, Care, and Disability
    A slightly different version is available in
    Also see the volume Care Ethics in the Age of Precarity
    Ed by Daniel Engster And Maurice Hamington.

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