Susan Boyle, the famous “unemployed Scottish Spinster” of “Britain’s Got Talent” fame has another story to tell. She is also youngest daughter of eight children born to Irish immigrant parents who lived at home to care for her aging mother during the ten years following her father’s death. Diagnosed with learning deficiencies due to a difficult birth, she may have had a hard time finding employment outside of her parents’ home, but thanks to the UK Carer’s Allowance, she probably had paid employment as her mother’s primary caregiver inside their home. While I cannot speak to Ms. Boyle’s specific situation, it is the case that in Great Britain, as well as in Australia and several other EU countries, family members who care for a frail elderly or disabled relative on a live-in or live-out basis are eligible for income replacement from the state.
These programs have been controversial in many ways: conservatives worry that cash for care will erode the notion of self-sustaining families, that it might taint family relations and blur the line between “care” and “work”. Some conservatives fear that this kind of caregiving remuneration will lead to an increase in elder abuse. Liberals, and in particular feminists, worry that payment for family caregiving will create a pink collar ghetto of female caregivers living on subsistence wages while caring for their elderly parents. Others worry that paying family members for care will deprive care receivers of the autonomy they might have in supervising an employee rather than a family member.
These questions are worth considering. However, we know that women provide the vast majority of care for the frail elderly, and in the United States, at least, the vast majority do so without any compensation. They receive no more than the standard unpaid FMLA leave from employment, and many must choose between employment and caregiving or balancing childcare with eldercare, both of which are unpaid and socially undervalued.
This last point deserves special note: unpaid care work is accorded little or no social value. In a recent article entitled, “Why Susan Boyle Makes Us Cry,” feminist activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin writes that Boyle’s sudden rise to stardum creates a collective lump in the throat because it makes us think of “the years of wasted talent, the career that wasn’t, the time lost…” As if Ms. Boyle and others like her were locked in a closet.
Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that Ms. Boyle’s beautiful voice is being heard all over the world. I listen to her sing before I start my writing workday. But I think it’s a shame that so many of us think that the time she spent before she met Simon Cowell was wasted.