Care as a Value and Valuing Care, by Professor Marian Barnes

The Observer on 8th June published a story demonstrating the impact of recent Government changes to housing benefits. As a result of being forced to move from Westminster to Brent because of benefit changes, Hanane Toumi and her young children aged 6 and 3 have to travel 5 miles each morning to get to school and nursery, before Hanane then travels to another part of London to work as a cleaner.  It has not been possible to get a school place near their new accommodation and nursery places are more expensive. Local government officers in Westminster and Brent have acknowledged that the situation is ‘not ideal’, but do not accept that the exhaustion and emotional impact resulting from this are a reason for reviewing the family’s situation.

Benefit changes introduced by the Coalition Government in the UK have been roundly condemned. But Ed Miliband’s announcement that an incoming Labour government would put a cap on the overall cost of benefits doesn’t inspire hope that too much would change.  What does this say about the value attached to ‘care’ by politicians and local officials? The Observer story was framed in relation to evidence that, rather than costing less, the financial cost to the state of homelessness is going up because of the costs of funding temporary accommodation for low income families in wealthy areas.  But implied within the story is the lack of care shown by the state about the everyday lives of women such as Hanane and her children. As a result of government decisions at national and local level Hanane’s capacity to care for her children and herself is severely compromised. Her daughter falls asleep at school and her emotional welfare is suffering.

Care ethicist Eva Kittay has named ‘epistemic responsibility’ and ‘epistemic modesty’ as fundamental principles for the ethical conduct of philosophy and I have suggested we should similarly apply these principles to the making of social policies. If policy makers neither know about or understand the circumstances and consequences of the policies they make, nor care about the lives of those impacted by these policies, then policy will not only be ineffective but unethical. Joan Tronto named ‘competence’ as one dimension of care and the experiential knowledge of those who live in poverty, and experience at first hand the impact of government policy, is essential to shaping  policies that are attentive to people’s everyday lives. But the Coalition government has proved itself to be unconcerned about making policy on the basis of ‘evidence’ when it comes to benefit changes. And the Labour leadership appears reluctant to articulate a value based approach to welfare.

Unless politicians and public officials recognise that they should care, that caring involves knowing what you’re talking about, and that care is a value that should guide social policy, experiences such as that of Hanane Toumi and her children will simply not be seen to matter.  Naming care as a value as well as valuing care are equally essential.

12/6/13

Marian  Barnes

Professor of Social Policy
School of Applied Social Science
University of Brighton
Mayfield House
Falmer, Brighton BN1 9PH

Barnes, M (2012) Care in Everyday Life: an ethic of care in practice, Bristol, Policy Press.

Kittay, E. F. (2010). The Personal is Philosophical is Political: A Philosopher and Mother of a Cognitively Disabled Person Sends Notes from the Battlefield. Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy. E. F. Kittay and L. Carlson. Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell: 393-413.

Tronto, J. (1993). Moral Boundaries. A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. London and New York, Routledge.

One thought on “Care as a Value and Valuing Care, by Professor Marian Barnes

  1. While this post makes sense in terms of linking a notion of care and the state, I must admit I remain uncertain about the term ‘care’ and its connotations. The language remains strongly bound to gendered meanings and indeed to some traces of christian altruism (as writers like Davina Cooper have noted). While these may of course produce strategic leverage and the language remains politically emotive in very useful ways, I do wonder about whether the word captures or excludes different understandings of connection, responsibility etc. While the work of a range of writers alerts us to the usefulness of tying social connection and the state together in those societies which increasingly emphasise atomised achievement, reference to care worries me still. The ‘helping the needy’ element seems so engrained in its usage. Ah but then how much difference does a word make? how important is the language we use in the public arena rather than in the scholarly literature? can the deployment of words be flexible enough to lessen older less inclusive meanings?

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