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Love’s Labours: uncovering the heart of social care

Love’s Labours: uncovering the heart of social care

Hannah Rich unpacks the key themes from her latest report ‘Love’s Labours’. 15/04/2024

Love is not, admittedly, the starting point of most policy analyses or reports. Perhaps one of the perks of being a theological think tank is how naturally we are able to approach apparently economic problems through the lens of concepts like love. Our new report, Love’s Labours, does just that, exploring the crisis in adult social care from this perspective. 

It is undeniable that, economically and structurally, there is a deepening crisis in social care which affects both care recipients and care workers alike. Last year, the job vacancy rate in adult social care was more than double that of the economy as a whole, with around 152,000 positions going unfilled. Simply, there are not enough care workers to meet the care needs of the population, at the same time that these needs are growing.  

With the ageing population, changes in working patterns and the welcome longer life expectancy of people with learning disabilities, fractures have emerged that neither the state nor the market have been able to meet. Economic and political factors around this have not helped the situation, with low pay and conditions for care workers, the cost of the living crisis, resourcing issues and changes to the visa system all having an impact. 

However, this crisis is not only economic in nature. It also represents a crisis of solidarity and a lack of imagination around how we envision social care – and even how we envision what it is to be human. In Love’s Labours, we draw on theological and sociological literature as well as first–hand experiences of paid social care workers to explore the role that love plays in care work.  

The devaluation of care work can be in part attributed to the assumption that it is ‘unskilled’. However, there is another dimension at play too. Far from being unskilled, the reverse is true if we consider the depth of emotional intelligence, the complex and sophisticated skills of relationship, empathy and intuition which are rendered invisible when care work is reduced to physical tasks. 

Making this interplay between emotional and physical skills more visible is crucial if the work of care is to be valued more highly. The emotional and economic sides of work are often seen as at odds with each other but can also be mutually reinforcing. Recognising the emotional affect as skill in itself can reshape how care is valorised economically.  

Love is a skill, and a highly complex, valuable one at that. The report argues that love is what makes care possible, both in the sense that it is often presented as the motivation for both paid and unpaid care, but also in the sense that it is what transforms a series of physical tasks into a concept of good care. 

Framing something as love is often what allows it to be undervalued or unpaid. It is, we argue, easy to forget the role of love within care work and to focus too much on the economic conditions of work. There is a shadow side to this idea, however, which risks pivoting too far in the opposite direction and ignoring that care work, both paid and unpaid, is still work. Seeing care as work is not mutually exclusive from understanding it as a form of love; both must be understood together.  

Some of the conclusions we reach here are not dissimilar from a purely economic or secular analysis of social care; care work, both paid and unpaid, needs to be better valued and the system as a whole needs more generous resources and provision. As the American sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn wrote, “as those who care for others know, love is not enough. Care requires material resources.” The material crisis of resources in the care sector is and does require material resources which are currently not sufficient to the needs. However, the flipside of Nakano Glenn’s statement is also true; material resources without a greater attention to the importance of love will also not suffice for a better vision of care work.

Read the Hannah’s new report, Love’s Labours, in full here.


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Image by Jsme MILA on Pexels

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘A Torn Safety Net’ (2022).

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Posted 15 April 2024



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