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Caring Reciprocity as a Political Ideal

Caring Reciprocity as a Political Ideal: A Call for Subsidized Family and Medical Care Leave in the U.S

By Maureen Sander-Staudt, Ph.D., Southwestern Minnesota State University


In discussing what role government and economic markets should play in care provision, the United States appears to be at a deadlock. Those left of the political spectrum hold that governments rightly assure care provision in some form, and support policies like health care insurance mandates or subsidies, while on the right, conservative and libertarian minded individuals object that government should play a minimal, if nonexistent, role in care provision, on the grounds that such provisions are better managed by individuals and free markets. But while debates about government subsidized health care are in the fore of public consciousness, arguments for government involvement on behalf of other care needs remain relatively unnoticed. Rarely is heard discussion about the adequacies of the Family Medical Leave Act, and the fact that the U.S. currently stands apart from all European countries in failing to offer government backed paid parental leave upon the birth or adoption of a child. Day care, elder care, and early childhood education are also less commonly discussed as deserving of broad government support.

In this paper, I use a feminist ethic of care to defend a concept of caring reciprocity that supports government guaranteed subsidies for family care, publically sponsored early child care education programs, an expansion of the category of dependency relations, and other forms of public care. To do so I defend the work of other care ethicists who favor public support for care provision as opposed to, or in addition to, free market care solutions. In my first section I offer a quick review of the development of a political philosophy of care. In the second section I hone in on one aspect of this philosophy, caring reciprocity. I use Eva Feder Kittay’s “doulia based principle of reciprocity” (DPR), and reinterpret Daniel Engster’s “principle of consistence dependency” (PCD) as a reciprocal principle, in order to establish a general governmental obligation to support care work. In the third section I use this concept to justify government based subsidies for care, the expansion of the current Family Medical and Emergency Leave Act, as described by Kittay, as well as subsidized early childhood education. Finally, I defend a principle of caring reciprocity against the objection that consistent dependency generates only familial obligations.

Section I: The evolution of a political philosophy of care ethics

In its original articulation, care ethics was distanced from political application because of the basic distinction made by early care theorists between the “care perspective” and “justice perspective”. It was argued, most notably by Carol Gilligan, that the “voice of care” represented a path of moral development distinct to that associated with the “voice of justice” inherent in liberal political philosophies. The care perspective was said to be distinct from the justice perspective of liberal political philosophy in emphasizing particular relationships of dependency, and in approaching ethics not as a “math problem with people”, but as a matter of upholding “a narrative of relationships over time”. However, because mainstream political practice is heavily dominated by the “justice perspective” of human rights in the U.S., this had a dampening effect on considering the implications of care as a political theory.

Care ethicists soon argued, however, that “the justice perspective” was not the only possible understanding of justice, and that justice need not be the only or dominant value of politics. At the same time, it was increasingly acknowledged that without some conception of justice, an ethic of care remained vulnerable to a host of problems, including cronyism, exploitation, and oppression. Joan Tronto was one of the first to note, “an ethic of care remains incomplete without a political theory of care” (Tronto, 1993,155). Even as it became apparent that the ethic of care benefitted from an infusion of justice considerations, it also became clear that it had much to offer as a political theory itself. Accordingly, care ethicists began to explore the implications of the “different voice of care” for political theory and practice.

One of the major developments in this transition was a critique of the major assumptions associated with liberal human rights theories, including the assumptions that non-intervention and (falsely presumed) formal equality of opportunity, are sufficient for achieving justice, that “citizen” denotes only rational and independent adults, that “citizenship” involves only activities in the public sphere, and that care responsibilities are rightly part of the private sphere. Rather, the ethics of care is rooted in the realities of human dependency and frailty. Thus, Kittay notes, “Social cooperation is required not only by autonomous and independently functioning individuals…but first and foremost for the purpose of those who are not independently functioning…persons who are too young, too ill, too disabled, or too enfeebled by old age to care for themselves” (Kittay, 1995, 12).

Today, care ethicists disagree about the comprehensiveness of an ethic of care, but tend to agree that an ethic of care has a number of features important for political theory, and that political theory and practice benefits greatly from its application. Some of these features include an emphasis on the moral priority of care, the inevitability of human frailty, and the realities of inter-dependency, and embodiment. As observed by Virginia Held, care is rightly understood as the most basic of social values because care is our first, and most basic of human needs (Held, 2006, 17). There can be care without justice, but not justice without care. It is only if humans receive care as infants that they are able to grow into persons capable of other activities and having interests warranting justice. Additionally, the frailty of infants is a condition of the human experience that is universally unavoidable, and typically, is revisited in a human lifetime as a person becomes ill, disabled, or elderly. Human beings are inter-dependent because as infants we depend upon others to care for us, and as we grow, we become implicated in other relations of receiving and giving care. Humans typically are unable to care for themselves independently throughout a lifetime, and we depend upon others to care for us, as others depend upon us to care for them. And a care ethic is essentially concerned with the body, because caring needs are bodily needs. As underscored by Maurice Hamington, “care does more than underpin yet another ethical theory: it is the very foundation of morality rooted in our body and our bodily practices”(Hamington, 2004, 5).

The failure to adequately meet the needs of care givers and receivers has led some care activists, like Deborah Stone, to call for a political “care movement” in the U.S. Closely associated with the call for a care movement, a “politics of care” understands care as a virtue attributable not only to individuals, but also to collectives and state institutions, including governments. A caring government is one that minimally recognizes and supports care relations. In opposition to more Machiavellian political theories, which posit that it is better for rulers to be feared than loved, or libertarian theories such as Robert Nozick’s, which conceptualize the ideal state as aloof and neutral in respect to care delivery, an ethic of care recommends that governments care about their citizens, and act so as to support the work of care-givers, as a matter of basic human need. The caring government is not one that is paternalistic in its efforts to protect its citizens from spurious harms, but rather one that exercises the sub-virtues of care—attention, response, respect, and completion—in meeting its citizens’ needs for care.

But beyond these features of a political philosophy of care, one of the most fruitful ways in which care ethicists have conceptualized the obligations of governments to “care-about care” is through a concept of caring reciprocity. According to this concept, individuals and collectives have an obligation to engage in the “give and take of care”. Although originally conceived as a caring ideal between individuals and families, a broader sense of caring reciprocity has emerged that implicates governments in caring obligations. It is this concept that I will now consider and defend.

Section II: A Political Principle of Caring Reciprocity

A principle of caring reciprocity is one that establishes caring moral obligations based upon a notion of give and take. The idea that care relations involve reciprocal dynamics was first introduced by Nel Noddings, who argued that care receivers are virtuous to the extent that they reciprocate the care they receive in a way that allows them to respond to their care givers (Noddings, 1984, 71). For Noddings, this principle of reciprocity is one that facilitates the act of care by replenishing the good will and motivation to care within the care giver. She describes the case of two babies, one who is responsive and interactive with his mother, the other who is not. In another case she describes two teenagers who are late returning home, one who notices his mother’s worry and moves to alleviate it while sharing his experiences, and one who does not (72). She notes that the former children reciprocate care more readily than the latter, reinvigorating the chains of care. Thus, even infants can be said to reciprocate care when they engage with their care-givers in an attentive and joyful manner. About reciprocity Noddings states that although “obviously reciprocity does not imply an identity of gifts given and received…what the cared-for gives to the relationship in direct response to the one-caring is genuine reciprocity…and completes the relationship” (74).

Noddings’ concept of reciprocity recognizes the significance of a kind of give and take in relations, but is ultimately inadequate as a political concept of reciprocity. Not only is it individualistic, dyadic, and contained within a private sphere, it pays little attention to how care relations are influenced by social forces and governed by interlocking powers. As we move beyond the mother-child dyad, relations become more faceted and levels of reciprocity grow more complicated. Questions of power are overlooked by Noddings, as are understandings of reciprocity more relevant to mutual governance.

But equally flawed are the concepts of political reciprocity associated with the “justice perspective” of liberal human rights theory, such as those found in the work of Immanuel Kant, John Locke, and John Rawls. Although these attend to mutual governance, they construe political relations as reciprocal amongst free and independent (and gender-neutral; disembodied) persons. Such perspectives take for granted that care is a needed moral good, at the same time they background care as an enterprise worthy of civic support. They tend to obscure a politics of needs interpretation and questions about political access to care and justice in the distribution of its labor (Fraser, 1987 ). Tronto’s observation that care is best defined as a practice because it is “work that must be done”, and that care is work typically performed by the politically and economically disadvantaged, is present in these theories in only a minimal way (Tronto, 1993).

Alternatively, contemporary care ethics builds from the universal need for care an obligation to argue for a concept of caring reciprocate that is more politically robust. Two accounts of caring reciprocity that ground an obligation for government support of care are evident in the political philosophies of care developed by Kittay and Engster. In her book, Love’s Labor, Kittay calls for an expansion of the concept of reciprocity found in Rawls’ theory of justice of fairness, and in so doing opens “a conceptual space for dependency concerns within social cooperation in a just society” (106). For Kittay, the concept of reciprocity is rooted in the idea of nested dependencies “linking those who help and those who require help to give aid to those who cannot help themselves” (107). Kittay bases her principle of reciprocity on the concept of a doula—a post-partum nurse who cares for a newly delivered mother so that she can in turn is able to care for her child. “Doula” serves as a general metaphor for the social need to care for care-givers. Her principle of doula states that “just as we have required care to survive and thrive, so we need to provide conditions that allow others---including those who do the work of caring—to receive the care they need to survive and thrive” (107). Later, Kittay uses this principle to establish an ideal of caring reciprocity that creates a broad social responsibility “for enabling dependency relations satisfactory to dependency worker and dependent alike”, as well as for “creating social institutions that enable care-givers to do the job of caretaking without becoming disadvantaged in the competition for social benefits” (109).

In a similar manner, Engster in his book, The Heart of Justice, develops a concept of caring obligation via his “principle of consistent dependency” (PCD). This principle states:

Since all human beings depend upon the care of others for our survival, development, and basic functioning and at least implicitly claim that capable individuals should care for individuals in need when they can do so, we should consistently recognize as morally valid the claims that others make upon us for care when they need it , and should endeavor to provide care to them when we are capable of doing so without significant risk to ourselves, seriously compromising our long term functioning, or undermining our ability to care for others (Engster, 2007, 49).

However, unlike Kittay, Engster hesitates to categorize the PCD as a principle of reciprocity.f He stipulates that the PCD grounds our duty to care for others “not in relations of reciprocity, but in our common human dependency” (50). This in part may be due to the implications that a concept of reciprocity may have for those who are unable to reciprocate care. If care is premised on an ability to reciprocate to those who have cared for us, does this imply that individuals who are unable to return care, for whatever reason, are undeserving of care in the first place?

Despite this stipulation, Engter’s PCD seems very much to be a principle of reciprocity at heart. That is, because individuals have depended upon care themselves (take), they should acknowledge as morally relevant the claims of care upon them (give). Although this principle does not imply a strict return of care only to those who have cared for us, the idea that the need and receipt of care throughout a human lifetime obligates us to return care within a broad and flexible network of care obligations is at core a reciprocal idea, albeit a loose one.

Casting the PCD as a principle of reciprocity gains certain leverage for Engster’s argument on behalf of care subsidies, and arguably, doing so need not be tripped up by the concern that the concept of reciprocity implies that one only deserves to receive care if one can gives it in return. Although most people are less likely to feel inclined to give care to those who do not reciprocate it out of selfish neglect, there is no reason to generalize this as a universal scenario. Because care ethics favors contextual reasoning, there is a way to argue that the chains of reciprocal obligations ought to be judged contextually, based on need, ability, good will, and other considerations. The concern that those incapable of giving care are undeserving of receiving care is undermined by a more Marxist concept of reciprocity, such as that adapted by Kittay. This is a concern only if the concept of caring reciprocity is one that is static, and unable to accommodate the contextual situations of particular care-givers and receivers.

For example, Kittay’s principle of reciprocity avoids this problem by stipulating that the give and take of care be premised on an unequal vulnerability in dependency, on similarly unequal powers to respond to others in need, and the primacy of human relations to happiness and well-being (113). She adapts the Marxist principle of reciprocity to develop her own principle of social responsibility for care:

To each according to his or her need for care; from each according to his or her capacity to care, and such support from social institutions as to make available resources and opportunities to those providing care, so that all will be adequately attended in relations that are sustaining (Kittay, 1999, 114).

Such a principle establishes reciprocal obligations without entailing that all individuals have an equal entitlement to care, or an equal obligation to care.

However, this principle raises other problems that are salient to the argument at hand. First, how should care be distributed to those who have benefitted from care and are capable of reciprocating care, but for selfish reasons, choose not to? Second, how should support from social institutions be distributed so as to be just, taking into consideration finite resources, competing claims on caring goods and services, and the former “freeloader”objection? Should you be required to support social institutions that provide care to others at your expense, especially if you disagree about the legitimacy or extent of their need? What if you have worked hard and planned carefully so that you are not in need of the support of caring institutions. Should you be forced to subsidize the care of others who seemingly have not worked as hard or planned as diligently?

These are issues concerning freedom of conscience and distributive justice that are not easily resolved, but an ethic of care is prone to seek a solution that will maintain all relationships, and accommodate those who wish to withdraw from socially supported care, to a certain extent. While the problems of freeloading, misrepresentation of need, and social parasitism are of concern to a care ethic because of how they misappropriate care resources from the more needy, the possible abandonment or neglect of those with legitimate needs are problems of higher concern. An ethic of care is likely to tolerate a certain level of freeloading over the withdrawal of care by the state, on the grounds that the latter is the greater potential harm. An ethics of care might seek to minimize the squandering or undue hoarding of care resources through informal mechanisms of virtue development and social shame, as well internal system checks and balances, and limits on care benefits. These dangers are to be minimized whenever possible, but tolerated when not dissolvable, because the alternative involves denying governmental support networks for care, which creates moral peril and harm to those who necessarily give and receive care.

Section III: Care Ethical Reciprocity and Government Subsidized Care—Expanding the FMLA

Both Kittay’s DPR and Engster’s PCD support the argument on behalf of care based subsidies, and for expanding the FMLA in the U.S. more precisely. On this much, Kittay and Engster agree (Engster, 139). Where they disagree, however, is on the best economic model for doing so. Like Diemut Bubeck, Virgina Held, Selma Sevenhuijsen, and other care ethicists, Kittay favors government and corporate subsidization of care work that accrue to more socialist economics programs (Bubeck, 1995; Held, 2006; Sevenhuijsen, 1998; Kittay, 1999).[1] Alternatively, Engster is open to the ways in which both socialist and free market economic systems might creatively meet a society’s need for care (Engster, 200139).

However, although Engster may be right that free markets can creatively serve to meet a society’s need for care, and he is careful to note the pitfalls associated with such an approach, arguably, we must place this debate into the actual context of care relations as they exist in the current U.S. That is, although a free market approach to care may be justified in cultures that have traditionally leaned more heavily in the direction of socialist type policies for economics, and a balance of both approaches may be ideal in every society, the U.S. currently leans heavily in favor of free market solutions to care, and balance is not present. The majority of families looking for care services in the U.S. will look to the market, because there are simply few other options. While care centers for all sorts of needs have been established around the nation that offer quality and convenience (e.g. Tutor Time), they do not typically offer affordability. The supplemental care market (small business or informal care services) may offer affordability, but not always quality and convenience.

For the same reasons that the United States as a nation does not leave education exclusively in the realm of the free market, so there is reason to argue on behalf of an understanding of care as a public entitlement along the same lines as public education. If care is a prerequisite to education, and a good of greater or at least comparable worth of education, then why shouldn’t we begin thinking about providing care services to citizens in the same way that we provide public education, that is, as tax based subsidies?

Currently, this is not the predominant schema for understanding care. Although care subsidies are now offered in the U.S. on both the state and federal level to the poorest of citizens, in the case of the primary source of federal funding for subsidized child care, the Child Care and Development Fund—only 10-15% of children eligible for care subsidies receive them (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 1999). Subsidies are not offered to those wage earners who surpass federal income requirements, meaning that the majority of families who would greatly benefit from such subsidies are not receiving any kind of outside support. Yet, there clearly is a need. In 1997, according the National Survey of American Families, 48% of families with children under age 13 had child care expenses, and 60% of families with children under the age of 5 paid for care (Giannarelli and Barsimantov, 2000, 2). Looking specifically at care for children under the age of 6, over 11 million children are in child care settings, on average for over 35 hours a week (Aquilar, 2011, 2). The nation average monthly cost of childcare for this demographic is $325, or 10 % of income, and many report that it is the second greatest family expenditure behind their mortgage or rent (Giannarelli and Barsimantov, 2000, 2). Comparatively, low income families spend over one-fourth of their income on child care, while higher income families spend 5% of their income (Henry, Werschkul, & Rao, 003). In 2011, a national child care organization released a report showing that annual costs for caring for an infant exceeded the cost of public college tuition in every state, and in some cases was over double the cost (Henry, Werschkul, & Rao, 2003, 2; Aguilar, 2011, 2).

Although the U.S. federal government offers tax credits for child care expenses, there is typically only a small return of overall expenses (about 10%), and the credit is offered only once a year. Many families with care-responsibilities are double income households, or led by working heads of households, who work for wages by necessity, and require care services to make it possible to earn a livable wage. To balance the responsibilities of paid labor and care, many families look to other family members to provide unpaid care work, tag team with different shifts, or leave children for a few hours in “self-care”. The current organization of caring labor in the U.S. is predominantly dictated by market forces not to the benefit of care-givers and receivers in a socially reciprocal fashion, but rather according to what fits the narrow confines of the larger goals of profit generation. As a result, dependency relations suffer, and the labor of care givers is unjustly unreciprocated, even though research indicates that the intitial years of life life are critical for children’s long run social, emotional and cognitive development (Henry, Werschkul, & Rao, 2003, 5).

For these reasons, the U.S. would benefit from prioritizing the establishment of social subsidies for care over free market forms of care delivery. To this extent, both Kittay and Engster support an expanded level of care subsidies, including a revision of the FMLA (Kittay, 1995; Engster, 2007, 69). As Engster posits, “care sectors, including childcare, health care disability care, and education should be publically regulated and subsidized to ensure affordable quality care for all individuals” (Engster, 145). Given the current state of affairs, establishing such subsidies should, for the time being, take priority in the U.S. over market forms of care delivery, although they could work in partner with such existent measures. Starting the process of subsidizing care by revising the current FMLA, could pave the way for the other forms of subsidized care recommended by Engster.

Passed into legislation in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, the current FMLA permits individuals employed by companies with over fifty workers to take up to three months of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for themselves or an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent), in times of serious illness. As Kittay has argued, there are at least three problems with the current FMLA: it is unpaid, it applies only to employers in larger companies, and it construes family relations in traditional terms (Kittay, 1995). To this we might add a fourth and fifth problem--it leaves employers responsible for replacing workers on care leave without any governmental support, creating a disincentive to hire individuals who are, or may become, care-givers; and its three month limit ignores how dependency responsibilities are typically not of such a short duration. Taking childbirth as an example, although the post-partum period requires a certain amount of healing for women, and newborn infants require intense levels of care, it is not always the case that women are fully able to work as they had after three months (especially if lactating), or that the dependency needs of infants magically disappear, or even significantly reduce after three months. In fact, when it comes to infants, care responsibilities intensify as a child enters the 1-3 year period, because it is then that they become mobile and curious, and most prone to getting into trouble without diligent supervision.

Taken together, these problems may be at least partially alleviated with an addition of a federally sponsored subsidies for care leave. With such subsidies workers would not have to be independently wealthy in order to afford an unpaid leave. Such subsidies could apply to all workers and not just those at large companies, and if shared with employers, could take the pressure off of businesses to shoulder the cost of replacing workers on leave. State based care subsidies could also offer a more flexible period of leave time, by allowing for an installment period of distribution. Additionally, were state subsidies for care extended to early childhood education, essentially making pre-school a part of the current public education system, the period in need of supplementation, at least for child care, would be reduced to 1-3 years, rather than 1-5 years. Finally, if such subsidies were made available on the basis of a more diverse understanding of the family, Kittay’s third objection could likewise be avoided. To accomplish this, care leave should not be offered on the basis of a traditional understanding of who is a care-giver and who a care-receiver, or who is deserving of care along the lines of the nuclear family, but along more general lines delineated by caring needs. That is, anyone who is caring for another legitimately dependent person, immediate family or not, should be eligible for some kind of subsidy.

But how can such a governmental obligation to subsidize caring practices be established? In what way might it be argued that governments are obligated to provide financial support to the practice of care in a socially broad fashion? The concept of caring reciprocity is one such way to do so. For example, in response to Robert Nozick’s famous argument that individuals are entitled to keep all of the resources that they have justly acquired, such that Wilt Chamberlain is entitled to keep his excess wealth if people are willing to pay exorbitant sums to watch him play basketball, Engster posits that care theory challenges this presumed detachment. He writes

Why should Chamberlain be required to give up some of his hard earned income to subsidize the lives of others… Care ethics answers, because if it were not for the care of his parents, teachers, coaches and others, Chamberlain would never have been a great basketball player… basketball talents mean nothing outside society, and society would not exist without a web of caring” (Engster, 151).

By analogy one could apply the same type of argument to establish the embeddedness of government in the webs of caring, implicating government in reciprocal chains of care. That is, without the care of citizens, governments could not be formed. Governments may not require care in the exact same way as individual persons, as they are lacking a corporeal body with bodily needs, but that is not to say that they do not require care of some sort. They require recognition, loyalty, a grant of authority, protection, allegiance, financial support, and more. Furthermore, governments and societies are comprised of individual people, who in their most fundamental nature do have unavoidable embodied needs for care. The ability to protect and meet these needs, is one of the foremost reasons why individuals might form governments. Additionally, government means nothing outside of society, and society would not exist without a web of care. In this way, government can be said to fall under the two principles of care reciprocity that have been defended in this paper.

However, one further counter-argument to this project must be considered. That is, one might protest that the DPR and PCD, far from establishing reciprocal relations of caring obligations between all members of society, or between citizens and government, only establish a much more narrow circle of moral obligation between particular care-givers and receivers. While Engster considers this objection in terms of the argument that individuals ought provide for themselves, and that parents ought provide for their children, (not the state), an additional objection may be raised specifically against the PCD. This objection is that the PCD only obligates a reciprocal return on care to those who have cared for us directly (72). It may be argued, then, that Wilt Chamberlain is not obliged to care for diverse and distant others, or to subsidize care that accrues to an entire society, but more modestly, only to return care to those who have personally cared for him—his parents, teachers, coaches, etc. Because I have been cared for, I may be said to have an obligation to care for my own personal care-givers, (my parents) or to “pay forward” on this debt to other particular members included in these particular care relations (e.g. my children and parents’ grandchildren), but not to support care as a broad social entitlement. This may especially be the case if I feel that I have planned and sacrificed to meet the needs of my family in ways that more irresponsible others have not, or if I have arranged my life to minimize personal care obligations. In this view, caring reciprocity is understood as a matter of familial obligation. Further, Engster stipulates that a care theory only demands that care needs be adequately met. But if (my) familial relations are adequate to meet these needs, then perhaps the PCD carries no special weight in its argument for government subsidized care for others. True, because I have depended upon care myself, I am implicated in supporting a general scheme of care provision, but I need not more specifically support a scheme other than one that bolsters a strong sense of familial responsibility.

In response to this objection it can be stated that although a care politic is supportive of a familial level of responsibility for care, it is cautious about expecting it to be a universal possibility or a guaranteed sufficiency. First of all, not all care-givers have familial support systems, and whether one is able to give and receive care should not be wholly dependent upon this expectation. Secondly, it is not always possible to care for all care need contingencies, and even when they’d like to, many families in the U.S. lack the internal resources to meet all of their caring needs. Thirdly, traditional familial schemas of care delivery are often unjust because they disproportionately place exploitative care burdens on women and others family members positioned outside of the paid labor market. Fourthly, a sole reliance on familial schemes of care delivery is inappropriate in societies where families are rendered less able to care due to social factors beyond their control, such as the necessity of dual incomes, or labor expectations that conflict with care giving responsibilities. Although some individuals may object to being forced to subsidize the care of others when they perceive themselves as having exercised superior personal responsibility in planning, budgeting, etc., very often these same persons overlook how they have been enabled to do so by their larger social circumstances, and sometimes luck. If anything, the current economic crisis facing many families in the U.S. today who once enjoyed what they took as assured financial security, has revealed that even the best preparations may not preclude circumstances from arising that overtax familial resources. Ultimately, care subsidies should be available to all who need them, without requiring that they be used, or supported in singular way.[2]


Americans consider themselves to be a caring people. It ought thus strike us as extraordinarily odd that we stand almost alone amongst the more developed countries (and even among many comparatively underdeveloped countries) in not offering paid care leaves for new parents. In this paper I have expanded on the idea of care based reciprocity to argue that the U.S. government, businesses, and other public institutions have a heightened responsibility to provide universal and guaranteed subsidies for a range of care services, and more particularly, for an expansion of the current FMLA. I argued that Kittay’s principle of caring return and Engster’s principle of consistent dependency both can be understood as ideals of reciprocity that support the obligation of public institutions to assure financial support the work of care. How exactly this obligations are to be divided is an important topic for future research. Generally, care ethics recommends a distribution model that conforms to graduated levels responsibility from the local to the national. Although the debate over the proper role of government in guaranteeing more fair and equal access to health care is certainly worthy of national attention, let us not overlook the need to have this same debate about other worthy needs for care.


Works Cited

Aguilar, Alexa. 2011. “Working Parents Struggle with Costs of Child Care” excerpt from Chicago Tribune, Sept. 26. report/Working_parents_struggle. Last accessed, 1/6/2012

Barsimantov, James and Giannarelli, Linda. (2000) “Child Care Expenses of America’s Families” Urban Institute, Dec. 1. Last accessed 2/2/2012.

Bubeck, Diemut. 1995. Care, Gender and Justice. (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press).

Engster, Daniel. 2007. The Heart of Justice: Care Ethics and Political Theory. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press).

Fraser, Nancy. (1987). “Women, Welfare, and the Politics of Needs Interpretation”. Hypatia. Winter, 103-121.

Hamington, Maurice. 2004.Embodied Care: Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Feminist Ethics. (Chicago, IL: University of IL Press).

Held, Virginia. 2006.An Ethic of Care: Personal, Political, Global. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press)

Henry, Colleen; Werschkul, Misha; Rao, Manita C. 2003. “Child Care Subsidies Promote Mothers’ Employment and Children’s Development.” Institute for Women’s Policy Research # G714. October.

Kittay, E. Feder. 1995. Taking Dependency Seriously: The Family and Medical Leave Act Considered in Light of the Social Organization of Dependency Work and Gender Equality”. Hypatia 10.1.

-----------. 1999. Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Dependency, and equality. (New York, NY: Routledge).

Noddings, Nel. 1984. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. (Berkeley, CA: University of CA Press).

Sevenhuijsen, Selma.1998. Citizenship and the Ethics of Care: Feminist Considerations on Justice, Morality, and Politics. (New York, NY: Routledge).

Tronto, Joan. 1994. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of care. (New York, NY: Routledge Press).

U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. 1999.”Access to Child Care for Low-Income Working Families.


[1] Bubeck thus writes “The extension of the scope of the ethic of care thus provides a very simple but strong argument for welfare state type public institutions which remedy the distributive injustice produced by the pattern of private care.

[2] Thus, one way to handle this objection might be to adopt a strategy parallel to public and private education, where public education is available to all children, but families may decide whether or not to partake, and how to spend their allocated share. Citizens who pay into a fund for care subsidies but do not personally use them, could write them off as a tax deduction, or be granted some other good or service in exchange.