We need a better and more caring economy

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Hands touching. Image credit: giselaatje/Pixabay

On February 24, the Parliamentary Budget Office issued a report critical of plans by the Department of National Defence to spend $77.3 billion to build 15 new naval warships. That is in addition to the $19 billion Ottawa is going to spend on new fighter jets.

By way of comparison, in 2019-20 the federal government allocated $1 billion to affordable housing, $1 billion over two years to long-term care, $15 billion to public transit over eight years beginning in 2026, and $20 million (not billion) to study child care (again).

In 2018-19, the federal government transferred $71.7 billion to provincial and territorial governments for health, education and social services and equalization.

If you had to choose between 15 warships and a new "generation" of fighter jets we don't need, on the one hand, and doubling one year's worth of education, health care, social services and equalization payments for all Canadians, on the other hand, which would it be?

A new care economy statement calls for a radical change in the priorities reflected in the spending patterns we've seen across the country all our lives -- what it describes as a "care economy."

Drafted by five leading political economists -- Pat Armstrong, Marjorie Cohen, Laurell Ritchie, Armine Yalnizyan, and Leah Vosko -- the care economy statement outlines six core principles that future budgets and the public policies of all governments must address.

It calls on Canadians to mount a campaign leading into the next federal election with demands for a total rearrangement of how we organize our economy and for what purpose.

It's been a long while since an election -- at any level -- mobilized people around a common cause like that. The last time it happened the focal point was the neoliberal Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA), but in retrospect, the real issue was about what kind of society we wanted to live in.

Activists -- labelled "intellectual terrorists" by Thomas d'Aquino, president of the right-wing Business Council on National Issues -- feared that the FTA would destroy the country, and warned that the deal would weaken Canada's social service infrastructure, undermine our universal health-care and unemployment insurance systems, lower wages and threaten Canadian culture -- among other things. And now here we are, living in a shredded social safety net.

A core economic principle, advanced by the legendary Cambridge economist Joan Robinson, was that all spending is received as income. Austerity, practiced in Canada willfully since Brian Mulroney won a record number of seats in 1984, has contributed to declining incomes and lowered employment in Canada.

Indeed, austerity itself masked something more sinister: depravation for many Canadians who were left unable to meet basic needs for housing, hygiene nutrition, and instead were left to forage for care. The army of homeless Canadians on the streets of Vancouver, and other major centres, and the opioid deaths bear witness to the inhuman conditions many live through in Canada, once the good society.

Caring for people is work that already is done, but it is not funded adequately -- and often it isn't funded at all. And those doing this caring work are mostly underpaid or unpaid women, highly racialized, and often are concentrated in parts of the economy where they are marginalized and super-exploited. Their work is deemed worth far less than those mostly white and wealthy men who sit around corporate board tables ruining the world. 

The care economy is "rooted in a feminist, intersectional, anti-colonial, and anti-racist approach" to social inclusion and requires "public investment in public services to ensure equitable access to care."

Public spending on building and maintaining our physical infrastructure is important in the care economy -- but it is no more critical to our well-being than massively higher public spending on social infrastructure.

Even better, in a caring economy a large part of public spending would be directed towards paying people -- and paying them more than most get now -- including those who already are part of the caring workforce but who aren't paid at all.

At the end of 2020, we heard Justin Trudeau laud front-line workers and those who "lend a hand, make personal sacrifices, and help others," praise that was sung by elected officials, corporate leaders, communities and neighbourhoods across the country.

The care economy statement simply goes a step further and demands that these activities become the central underpinning of the Canadian economy. After all, 21 per cent of the Canadian workforce is already employed in the health and education sectors which contribute 12 per cent to overall GDP -- and, as the authors note, "A well-functioning care economy is key to the functioning of all the other parts of the economy."

The COVID-19 pandemic has given us enough reason -- if we needed it -- to begin mobilizing to ensure the "return to normal" isn't the normal that got us here in the first place.

That "normal" looks like ongoing high rates of poverty affecting one in every seven Canadians, including 1.3 million children and half of all Indigenous children and youth, 15 per cent of single elderly people, one in five racialized families, and 15 per cent of people with disabilities.

A year into the pandemic, reported cases of COVID-19 among Indigenous people in Canada were 187 per cent higher than for non-Indigenous and the fatality rates among First Nations living on reserves was 47 per cent higher. If there are any lessons to take away from the COVID-19 pandemic it is this: the normal we left in 2019 is not the normal we should go back to.

The better and more caring economy envisioned in the statement has inspired movements and revolutions for well over a century. It certainly has been a central theme in the struggles in our own time for peace, for social, environmental and economic justice, and for an end to Canada's idea of a "good" economy that consigns both those who need care, and those who provide it, to the margins.

All governments have stressed during COVID-19 that "we're all in the same boat." But the strength of the statement is its statement of obvious fact: that "to get out of this together we must care for each other."

A care economy that supports both those who need and those who provide care is the essential ingredient to something that is different than "normal" and that's exactly what we need.

Colleen Fuller is a researcher, writer and activist with a focus on health and pharmaceutical policy. She is the president of the REACH Community Health Centre in Vancouver and a steering committee member of Independent Voices for Safe & Effective Drugs. 

Image credit: giselaatje/Pixabay

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