Care work has long been out of sight and mind as a social policy issue in the United States. That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic put employees of hospitals, nursing homes, and other health care settings at the forefront of our national discussion, along with daycare providers and other in-home caregivers.
Increased public interest in care work is an opening that advocates can use to shift how we think about care, who provides it, where it happens, and how we value and support it. As part of the Culture Change Project—which explores shifting patterns of thinking during our current time of social upheaval—the FrameWorks Institute, in partnership with the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, set out to understand the deeply held cultural mindsets the American public brings to thinking about care work, and how these mindsets may be changing.
Here are just a few findings from this research, conducted over 15 months from May 2020 through August 2021:
- “Care work” is understood to mean “health care.” When participants in our research were asked to think about care work and care workers, they consistently brought up doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and paramedics.
- Care work outside of a hospital setting is considered less skilled, less important, and less valuable. This was particularly true for home-based care, which people considered important for those who receive it but less essential for the rest of society.
- Caring is often thought of as a character trait—not a skill. The assumption that care work depends on an individual’s natural capacity to care makes it harder for people to see how systems, supports, and policies are necessary to improve care work and support those who provide it. For care work outside hospital settings, where care is already viewed as less skilled and less important, this understanding creates an even higher barrier to building support for programs and policies that address inequities and injustices.
- People recognize that context matters when it comes to quality of care. In thinking about care, it appears that, with the right framing, Americans are able to shift perspective and recognize the importance of systems and social structures in influencing care work. When thinking moves in this direction, there is room for public support for better pay and working conditions for care workers.