Unpaid Work as a Form of Social Wealth

According to conventional economics, wealth is created by business — and households do little more than buy and consume. But, in fact, families are an enormously important engine of social wealth. They raise children, take care of the elderly and enable our culture to reproduce itself from one generation to the next. These responsibilities are often described as “care work.”

If anyone dares to wonder — How can we begin to properly recognize and protect this special form of social wealth? — the answer requires us to address some basic issues of gender equality. Women, after all, perform the bulk of the world’s unpaid work in households. And this vital work is not likely to get done, or be done well, if it is stigmatized as “women’s work” that has little social recognition or financial support.

These were among the key themes of the third lecture in the Forum on Social Wealth lecture series at UMass Amherst, last Thursday (December 1, 2005). Feminist economist and sociologist Diane Elson cast a spotlight on the huge amounts of (unrecognized) social wealth created by women. Besides households, hospitals and social service programs rely heavily upon (women) volunteers, and family businesses and farms often depend upon wives and children. In developing countries, women are expected to perform even larger amounts of both household and paid work.

Socially recognizing and supporting unpaid work is immensely complicated, however, because it is implicated in a deep and tangled history of patriarchy, markets and public policy. Care work is also ensnared in cultural norms and reinforced by women’s social isolation at home and the coercion of domestic violence.

Elson pointed out that economists have few indices for measuring just how much unpaid work is being done or for estimating its size relative to the Gross Domestic Product. But the amount of such work being done, relative to the market economy, is very large. One study estimated that the value of unpaid work excluded from the GDP as a percentage of the GDP was 77% of the GDP in the U.K. and between 26 and 50% of the GDP in India.

There are lots of indices to assess the value of paid labor and capital, but very few for unpaid work. Nor are there any consistent international metrics of valuation of such work. One problem is that there are all sorts of methodological questions in assigning a surrogate market price to unpaid labor. Does a woman’s services as a cook at home get assigned the minimum wage or the wage of a specialist chef?

However it is calculated, unpaid care work is in effect a big subsidy to the market and the state. It allows businesses “to reduce the wage costs of social reproduction,” Elson said, while “enabling workers to feel like humans in a system that treats them like commodities.” Unpaid work also tends to indirectly reduce public expenditures and taxation,

For Elson, the primary question that we must face is, “How can we recognize and value unpaid work without reinforcing patriarchy and the pursuit of profit?”

Some critics object that assigning a cash value to care work demeans it. Yet feminists respond that monetary valuations also serve as a type of social respect. Without them, men tend to give lip service to such labor (“Oh, raising children is such important work!”) while steering clear of doing it themselves or financially supporting it through government programs.

I find the commodification debate vexing. One reason that care work is so valuable is precisely because it is not done on a for-profit basis. It lies beyond the market. Yet it obviously needs financial support. It was pointed out that it is possible to financially support care work without transforming it into a market commodity. Or as economist Bruno Frey has said, external rewards can be a force to “control,” or they can be a way to “acknowledge.”

That seems to be the challenge in supporting care work — to construct hybrid institutions and programs that can financially support the work without turning it into a market commodity. There’s a real difference between paying people for elder care as a public service (via a government program, say) and paying for it through a competitive, for-profit market. The latter tends to organize itself along a factory model because it clearly prizes efficiency over all else, while the former, if provided through nonprofits or worker cooperatives, are more likely to be socially caring.

Professor Elson’s lecture and subsequent discussion revealed the very complex interconnections among care work, gender equity, the market and public policy. This complexity is only compounded when once looks internationally and the stark differences between industrialized and poor countries. Markets can be a liberating force for women working in poor nations, for example, at least in terms of gender equity. But in the U.S., many families are being suffocated by the market as it devours our time and substitutes VCRs for family story-telling and fast food for family dinners together.

Elson said that if we really care about the superior value of unpaid caring by family members — as opposed to its procurement through the market — then we need to move toward a “universal caregiver model.” Both men and women must be willing and able to provide care work. “In the end,” said Elson, “I want to see that poverty, insecurity and domestic violence are in fact addressed, and I want to see prestigious people doing the unpaid work.”