This piece is part of Apolitical’s spotlight series on the care economy, in partnership with the Wilson Center. It also appears in our public health newsfeed.
In Judy Brady’s iconic essay, “I Want a Wife,” the feminist activist enumerates the dozens of practical and emotional tasks wives perform as a matter of duty. At the end, she asks: “My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?”
Wives, mothers, sisters, daughters — women do an estimated 75% of the unpaid work in the world, according to McKinsey. Feminist economists have long advocated for the inclusion of this work in national accounting statistics. Household labor in general, though, is considered beyond the “production boundary” of goods and services that account for GDP estimates. Yet, McKinsey believes, unpaid care work performed by women accounts for the equivalent of 13% of global GDP.
The ground is starting to shift, as aging populations, plummeting birth rates, and stalled or declining female labor force participation have forced societies to examine the care burden that falls overwhelmingly on women. Japan, Hawaii and, at the international level, the UN, are all experimenting with ways to better value unpaid work, or alleviate the burden of it.
But how should governments approach the problem?
Diane Elson, former chair of the U.K.’s Women’s Budget Group (WBG), a network of researchers and advocates, has advocated a three-pronged strategy.
For Elson, the goals are: “recognise, reduce, redistribute”. Recognise the care by measuring it. Reduce the burden by investing in physical and social infrastructure that eases individual care and domestic work. Redistribute the work through policies, such as shared parental leave, that encourage men to take on care work at the same rate as women.
Estimating care: methodologies and challenges
Government economists in Sweden and the United States took a stab at estimating unpaid household work nearly a century ago, using the fairly crude methodology of multiplying the number of rural and urban households by the annual cost of employing a domestic servant.
Until the second world war, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway included household production when estimating national income, but stopped once UN guidelines for national accounts were standardised. These did not include extensive accounting of household or non-market work.
Since then, feminist economists and others have advocated for deploying “time-use surveys” to give a fuller picture of the economy. These surveys usually ask participants to keep a diary of all of their activities over a period of time. In some cases they consist of a detailed questionnaire. According to Elson, at least 85 countries across all regions of the world have conducted time-use surveys in the past half-century.
“Care might be more important not so much for the amount of time and energy it takes, but for what it prevents you doing”
The surveys have their shortcomings. Susan Himmelweit, Emeritus Professor of Economics at The Open University and co-ordinator of the WBG’s Policy Advisory Group, notes that time-use surveys can undercount the amount of time that women, especially, spend on childcare. Women often supervise children while doing other activities, such as cleaning or cooking. But Himmelweit has observed that people will report only one of those simultaneous activities.
“Care might be more important not so much for the amount of time and energy it takes, but from what it prevents you doing, and that is something that’s not always captured by the idea of the ‘value of care’,” Himmelweit said.
In countries with low literacy rates, government surveyors can conduct face-to-face interviews. Charities such as Oxfam and ActionAid have also carried out detailed time-use surveys in low-resource settings. For its report “Making Care Visible,” ActionAid used a participatory methodology in which communities of women from Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, and Uganda met in literacy and empowerment groups, and began to discuss their daily activities.
A facilitator in the group would introduce the time-use diaries, which were filled out, often with the help of graphics, as participants also learned basic literacy and numeracy skills.
The sticker price
Then there’s the question of how to value this unpaid time in monetary terms. Does it make more sense to calculate it as a replacement cost — the price one would pay to outsource a given activity? Or is the true price the opportunity cost — the labor market earnings that the caregiver or cleaner is losing out on by looking after an aged parent, or doing a load of laundry?
Nancy Folbre, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, gives the example of two roommates, one of whom is a lawyer. When it’s the lawyer’s turn to clean the apartment, are those two hours worth her rate at the law firm, perhaps several hundred dollars an hour, or the much lower rate it might cost to hire a professional cleaner?
In an economy with a high-skilled workforce, the opportunity cost methodology will give a higher estimate than the replacement cost approach.
Marilyn Waring, a New Zealand feminist academic, initially argued for calculating a dollar value for unpaid work, noting that (male) policymakers were most responsive to those sorts of hard numbers.
But in the years since, she has revised her approach, arguing that it’s entirely possible to make responsive policy informed by time-use surveys, without taking the intermediate step of valuing unpaid work with a dollar figure.
For example, if time-use surveys show women in a particular village spend four hours a day gathering water, what is the point of pausing to value those four hours in dollar terms, when it is clear they would benefit from improved water infrastructure regardless of how much their time is worth?
Folbre acknowledges that estimates of the value of care work can be misused. But for economists like her, they’re necessary evils. Without estimates, one has little leverage with which to push for certain policy changes when decision-makers are weighing costs and benefits.
“Investing in social infrastructure would create more jobs than an equivalent investment in physical infrastructure”
“In an ideal world, public policy would be just determined by democratic assessment of what social needs are. But in the world I live in, development planners do a cost-benefit analysis,” Folbre said. “I want to be able to participate in that debate, and I can’t do that unless I have some dollar estimates.”
The case for investment
One thing feminists can agree on is the case for government investment in care work.
For one thing, it’s good to have more care, generally. Investing in “social infrastructure” — such as publicly funded or subsidised child care and care for the elderly — leads to greater gender equality, as women are relieved of some of their care burden.
One 2016 study found that investing in social infrastructure in seven OECD countries would create more jobs than an equivalent investment in physical infrastructure such as roads or railways. That’s in part because care jobs pay less than construction jobs, but also because care jobs are far more labor intensive and require fewer inputs, such as materials and machinery, than construction.
Of course, the larger payoff is in the form of more well-cared-for society. But that type of well-being isn’t captured in the data, except perhaps on long-run productivity measures.
Sarah Gammage, from the International Center for Research on Women, points out that research on cognitive behavior shows investing in care, particularly child care and care for people with disabilities, “produces happier, healthier, more productive human beings”.
“So without sounding too instrumental, we can purchase healthier, happier societies by investing in care — and more gender equal societies,” Gammage said. “Because once you’ve resolved the Gordian knot of care, women can choose to enter and leave the labor force when they wish, and so can men.”
Himmelweit said that, despite the evidence that investing in care creates jobs and builds human capital, policymakers haven’t been as receptive as she would have hoped.
And there are structural issues. Even though governments do by and large recognise spending on health and education as social investment, fiscal rules (such as those of the European Union) don’t allow for the classification of social investment as capital expenditures, limiting the amount that governments can invest without falling afoul of budgetary guidelines.
“Investments in care are long-run public goods, like environmental sustainability,” Folbre said. “It’s hard to get people to invest in them, because they can free ride on everyone else’s investments.”
Nonetheless, the nation-state, of all institutions, is best poised to capture these benefits, since it can tax the next generation of productive citizens.
How to get policymakers to see this? That’s the $10 trillion question. — Anna Louie Sussman
(Picture Credit: Pixabay)