Care and the Commons

Anyone who gives others the nurturance they need without asking for dollar payback is feeding that big baby known as the market economy.

Parents tend to their children, who grow up to become wage-earners and taxpayers. If these services were withdrawn, it would cost a great deal to replace them. Friends and relatives tend to one another. Without that care, many individuals would be forced to spend money to purchase the assistance they need. Volunteers spend time and energy trying to help their communities. If that time and energy disappeared, many needs would go unmet.

Work primarily motivated by care for others contributes to the development of our social capital, our common wealth. But like the natural assets and environmental services on which our market economy also depends, this work goes largely uncounted.

In our economic system, to go uncounted is to be undervalued. Economists measure our success in market prices, ignoring the value of goods and services sucked from unpriced domains.

We have inherited an accounting system that measures the productivity of work by its rate of market pay. This accounting system ignores the value of unpaid work and understates the value of paid work that is partly motivated by affection or obligation.

Putting a precise monetary value on such work is impossible. But we can easily offer a minimum bound estimate by asking what we could have to pay for time devoted to the care of family members and friends if it were not offered at such a discount.

Instead of chattering on about the “new economy” or the “high-tech sector,” we should address problems in the “care sector” of our economy. This sector includes the unpaid labor provided within families and communities as well as the underpaid work of child care, elder care, nursing and teaching.

In much of the world today, men and women have equal rights before the law. But our cultural norms reinforce higher expectations for women than for men in the realm of care. These norms go a long way toward explaining women’s economic disadvantage.

The work of caring for other people does not pay very well. Women who take time out of paid employment pay a heavy price, lowing their future as well as current earnings. Paying jobs that require care and nurturance pay significantly less than comparable jobs that do not, taking into account level of education, experience, job tenure, and workers’ personal characteristics.

Many factors help explain this “care penalty.” Women have traditionally been channeled into feminine jobs. Few of these jobs are unionized. Many are them are incorrectly labeled “low-skill.” Women take these jobs on partly because they believe there is intrinsic value in caring for others.

“Isn’t that nice!” economists and businesspeople say. “They get psychic income! Virtue is its own reward.” Well, care is its own reward, but to a point, for a while. But care, like other environmental resources, can be used up, depleted, exhausted.

Many people have a hard time meeting the demands of paid employment without sacrificing their ideals of family care and community involvement. Few part-time jobs pay enough – or provide sufficient benefits – to live on. The U.S. remains the only major industrialized country that fails to provide paid family leaves from work.

Turnover rates in child care and elder care centers average 40% per year. Many school districts can’t staff their classrooms. A generation of nurses is about to retire with many fewer individuals willing to enter what has become an increasingly stressful profession.

A growing number of feminist economists point to growing problems in the care sector as a whole. Yet unpaid work, in particular, continues to be taken for granted. To take services for “for granted” is assume that they are given in perpetuity. They are not.

At one international conference in Canada, a journalist interested in this issue rang up a spokeswoman just as she was getting dressed, feeding her kids, and rushing to meet some friends. A bit distracted, she began trying to explain why caregiving should be considered socially productive work.

The journalist didn’t seem to be getting the point, so she resorted to a simpler, more vivid approach. “Look,” she said in frustration, “when you go to the store to buy milk, you have to pay for it, but breast milk is considered free. It’s not, really. Women have to produce it.”

This point initially seemed to get the journalist’s attention. He got on the phone to collect other opinions, and found another economist who commented that anything assigned a market value could be used to generate tax revenue.

This made for a sensational headline in the National Post: “Breast Milk Could be Taxable!” followed by an apprehensive editorial in the same issue asking, “What if Breasts Seek to Unionize?”

When interviewed, a researcher from Canada’s national statistical agency conceded that breast-feeding, like other non-market work, has economic value because if it is not provided someone has to buy a market substitute for it. But the overwhelming response from the Post’s editorial columnists was ridicule. One gentleman, carried away with satirical ire, asked “Why, come tax time, are we not given recognition for the number of times we’ve relieved ourselves in a public restroom?”

Ironically, this is exactly what our national accounts do. We recognize the economic significance of any form of waste disposal or pollution that imposes clean-up costs upon the market economy (such as public restrooms). Yet we ignore the value of non-market contributions to family and community, such as breast milk.

Breast milk provides a good metaphor for both the environmental and care services provided by Mother Nature. But the very concept of Mother Nature is out of date. We can’t rely on her to take care of us any more. Indeed, we’ve interfered with her ability to do so, polluting our air and water because they are “free.”

We also abuse the services of care. Insisting that breast milk has economic value does not imply that it should be bought and sold (though of course it has been in many times and places). Just the opposite – it reminds us that the most important resources and services we rely on are not fully valued by the metric of the market.

The milk of human kindness does not flow from some inexhaustible source. Nor is it produced according to the laws of supply and demand. Both nature and economics play a role, but our propensity to care for others is governed to a large extent by cultural norms of obligation.

These norms are extraordinarily costly and women have traditionally paid a disproportionate share of the costs. Now the costs are going up and women’s willingness to pay for them is going down. If we don’t figure out how to reward care better – and to share it more equally – we are likely to see its bounty decline.

Nancy Folbre teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts and works with the Center for Popular Economics. This essay draws from ?The Economy Sucks?, an essay published in The Women’s Review of Books, Vol. XVIII, Nos. 10-11, July 2001. See for more information about the author.