From disparities in healthcare quality and coverage to housing and employment insecurity, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted existing inequalities in American society. But critically, the pandemic has also exacerbated these inequalities, particularly those that exist within the family. As work and school activities have shifted from schools and other public sites to the home, and employment has become more precarious, more and more Americans have found themselves struggling to reconcile the demands of the workplace with household responsibilities and their new roles shepherding children through the travails of remote education.
Much has been made of the pandemic’s particular effects on professional women, who have disproportionately assumed the twin burdens of work and caregiving during these extraordinary times. These burdens, coupled with the collapse of service industries in which women are disproportionately employed, have prompted women to leave the workforce in record numbers. The consequences of this exodus of women from the workforce cannot be understated. Indeed, some argue that this “she-cession” will erase decades of hard-won progress for working women, while also exacerbating race and class inequalities.
But speaking of these dynamics solely in the register of economic disruption, gender inequality, and work-family conflict overlooks a crucial player in this landscape: the state. As this Essay argues, not only has the pandemic revealed endemic inequality, it has also highlighted the state’s thin support for caregiving and family responsibilities, as well as the underlying presumption that the family will serve as a means of privatizing care and dependency. It is only in recentering the state, and being clear-eyed about its conscription of the family (and those within it) in the discharge of public functions, that we can be clear-eyed about the inequalities that are produced—and exacerbated—by the privatization of care.