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The SOTU, and the Politics of Invisible Labor

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Even though Election 2012 is over and decided, the themes of the election, in many ways, have not budged one iota since Obama has been re-elected. Each party continues to spin its own version of the economic landscape, with differing stories about who is deserving and who is not; who deserves tax breaks and who deserves government spending; who is contributing and who is mooching.

Obama and the Democrats, of course, emphasize equal opportunity regardless of background, rewarding hard work, and investing government help in those who have great promise for contributing in the future. Typical of that strain was this line from the SOTU :

" It is -- it is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country, the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like or who you love."

This message of an Emerald City of success awaiting any and all Americans, as long as they have the desire to work hard, and a little push from the government if needed, occurred throughout the 2012 campaign, and continues in many of Obama's speeches.

On the Republican side, the values of hard work and reward are shared, however the emphasis is different. In his rebuttal to the President's SOTU speech, Senator Marco Rubio said;

" But America is exceptional because we believe that every life, at every stage, is precious, and that everyone everywhere has a God-given right to go as far as their talents and hard work will take them."

It is, of course, hard not to notice the insertion of some anti-abortion rights language here, in the midst of talk about hard work and virtue ("every life at every stage") which is in keeping with what Rachel Maddow has called the Republican laser focus on "'jobs, jobs, jobs, by which they mean, abortion, abortion, abortion.'"

The Republicans also tend to emphasize reward for hard work after the fact - hard work that is often inferred by the spoils of success (e.g., high income, corporate status) - that they argue should be rewarded with tax cuts. On the other hand, those - particularly individuals - who find themselves wanting are assumed to have not worked hard enough to be deserving. This, of course, was the thrust of the infamous "47%" video unearthed by Mother Jones' David Corn, and is also the theoretical underpinning of much George Lakoff's work on the different worldviews of liberals and conservatives.

But beyond that, the Republican emphasis is less on what government can do to help, and more on the individual, and on religious language. And of course, the Republicans argue that individual achievement is best when government simply gets out of the way, as opposed to trying to even the playing field.

But there is one way in which both Democrats and Republicans have something in common, in their quests to stake out who among us has the virtue to justify rewards, and who does not.  That commonality is really about a general confusion about - when talking about public policy and the economy - what the level of analysis is; What a "generic" person is, Who our policies are aimed at, and where is the support system that those entities need to draw from?

Both Obama's and Republicans' rhetoric speak in glowing terms about earners: people who either work for wages or salaries, or entrepreneurs who run businesses. Occasionally there's reference to the need for that person to support their family. And if you get into the detail of policy proposals, you may occasionally hear Democrats talk about child care. But, in the realm of rhetoric, there is always the semi-conscious imagery of an autonomous hero, free to reach for the sky, undistracted by worrying about whether their child is sick at day care, or whether their elderly parent is safe, or whether they have time to do grocery shopping after work, or whether their disabled relative is in danger. This is because, despite the influx of women into the workforce over the last several decades, neither our language nor our workplaces have fully adjusted to the new reality.

Instead, we have labored under the unrealistic expectation that in order for women to enjoy equal opportunity, it is only women themselves that need to change. Unfortunately, a recent study has shown the consequences of this assumption.

A November 2012 survey on the working lives of domestic workers shined a light on the dark side of unbridled achievement for "all." On wages,

"The survey found a significant number suffer from dismal pay...  some reported earning as little as $1.50 an hour."

Working conditions were no better:

"The survey also described other dismal working conditions for domestic workers " Almost half said that they had to be on-call at any time."

These workers are overwhelmingly female, and economically vulnerable  in a variety of ways. As Hester Eisenstein argues in Feminism Seduced , it would be a sad commentary on mainstream feminism, if it merely meant the exploitation of some women for the "liberation" of others.

So, when Obama romanticizes hard work and achievement, and Rubio and the Republicans hold up "makers" over "takers," who is being left out? Do they really mean it when they say that we all should have the opportunity to "make it" in the economy, or must those left behind to care for the dependent among us (children, the elderly and the disabled) be excluded from that dream?

True equal opportunity for all, requires factoring in the contribution of the work of child care to the economy, and changing the structure of work - now still dependent on 24/7 on-call, low-or-no paid care - to make the realities of work and the realities of family more in line with each other. Political rhetoric on both sides should reflect that.


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Amy Fried is the author of "Escaping Dick Cheney's Stomach." She received her Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior, and has been an advocate for church-state separation and other civil liberties issues. She writes on women's issues, media, veganism (more...)

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