Labour Studies prof tackles issues of welfare reform and child care in new book

Simon Black’s research trip to New York City to start work on a new book did not go exactly as planned.

“I went to New York planning to research community resistance to some of the most draconian welfare reforms in the U.S.,” says Black, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Labour Studies. “What I found was that much of this activism centered around child care, but that fact had been left out of most accounts of welfare reform.”

Inspired by two mentors in the field, Professor of Political Science Leah Vosko at York University and Professor of Political Science and Sociology Frances Fox Piven at the City University of New York, Black decided to look at what he describes as “relatively unexamined dimensions of one of the most significant social policy reforms of the last 30 years.”

The resulting book — Black’s first — is Social Reproduction and the City: Welfare Reform, Child Care, and Resistance in Neoliberal New York, available today from the University of Georgia Press.

“Welfare reform in the U.S. saw thousands of poor single mothers kicked off the welfare rolls and pushed into low-wage, precarious work, ignoring the very valuable work they were already doing — the work of raising and caring for their children,” says Black.

“In New York City, the question of who would care for their children became the subject of a decades-long struggle that pitted mean-spirited conservative mayoral administrations who wanted care work to be done ‘on the cheap’ against poor and working-class mothers, child care providers and welfare rights activists. These groups organized to demand fair solutions to the child care crisis that addressed mothers’ need for quality, affordable child care as well as child care providers’ need for decent work and pay.”

According to Black, the book explores two key ideas through its historical analysis. One is that cities have been sites of working-class women’s struggles over social reproduction, which Black defines as “all the processes and labours that go into reproducing people on a daily and intergenerational basis, including the work of caring for children.” The other is the politics of the care crisis.

“The crisis of care is not peculiar to New York or the U.S., for that matter,” notes Black. “Many families find the cost of quality child and elder care out of reach, while workers employed in care sector — who are overwhelmingly women and disproportionately immigrant and racialized women — experience poor working conditions and low pay.”

Black characterizes the resulting situation as a dual crisis in which “many families lack access to quality, affordable care, while women who work as care providers struggle to provide for their own families.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s likely because the book’s release comes at a time when issues of child care and the valuing of care work are top of mind for many due to the global pandemic.

“Care is the work that makes all other work possible,” Black asserts. “There is no economic recovery without child care, and high quality care means decent work and pay for providers. What this book shows is that a child care movement that brings together care workers and families and is willing to make noise — to hit the streets, protest and march, occupy politicians’ constituency offices, and get the attention of the media — can win important victories.”

Black says that the organizing and resistance of child care workers in New York City continues to provide inspiration for his research and activism, and has also been inspired by several academics whose groundbreaking research helped shape his ideas about the field.

“The book has been reviewed and blurbed by two scholars whose work I have been reading and engaged with since my undergraduate years as a sociology student, Frances Fox Piven and Meg Luxton,” says Black. “I’m blown away to see their names and praise on the back cover of my first book.”

Black notes that “Brock is home to some of the leading scholars of care work in the country, with folks like Andrea Doucet, Kate Bezanson and my Labour Studies colleague Kendra Coulter.”

But he also acknowledges that his appreciation for care workers goes back quite a long way.

“The person who led me to study care work is ultimately my mother, a feminist and socialist who always taught me that care work is work, and that recognizing and valuing this work is necessary for gender equality and building a more socially just society,” says Black.

Black’s research in the area of care work will continue in his next project, a collaboration with scholars at the Hugh Shearer Labour Studies Institute at the University of the West Indies and the Jamaican Household Workers’ Union to study the rights of domestic workers in the Caribbean.

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