Taking care of someone who needs care is vital to their survival and well-being, and by extension vital to the community since the community always has members in it who need care at some point. However the care role has been seen as vital to the economy and then more recently not seen as vital. It is that ignoring of its role that is the issue, the problem that many seek to address.
To look at how formal economics was framed over the years can be useful, to see where it did and did not notice the care role.
b .Flaws of the main standard for economics tally, the Gross Domestic Product
c. Alternatives to the GDP_
early societies – Direct physical care of children, the sick and the elderly was deemed a woman’s role, while protection and hunting and gathering was the
men’s role. They two were interdependent.
1500’s – the world’s richest nations are about twice as well off as the
1600s- Men earned money for their farm and market labor while
the caregiving role in the home, done by women was not
assigned monetary value. However the two functioned
as interdependent. Men relied on women to cook and care
for others while women relied on men to provide financial
support. However in reality women also often did some
gathering as gardeners and took some products to market.
1750 – the world’s richest nations are now five times as well off as
the poorest nations. The ‘gap’ has increased since 1500.
1776- Adam Smith writes :” An inquiry into the Nature and Cause of Wealth of Nations’ examining reasons why nations differ so much in their wealth, and looks at some
culture factors. He observes that people are self-interested but that they
can adapt to needs of others,saying that when each operates doing what is best
for himself, this creates good products and fair prices the market determines
and others also do the same. His theory is that an invisible hand ensures all
can thrive in this way and that government should not regulate much.
Economics is more recognized as a formal discipline.
1800s As money was made a more key marker of work and of worth,
the care role in the home got devalued and the earner role
was more praised in economics. The care role was so closely
associated with women that even if men did it it was not
seen as important work and whatever women did by extension
even if in business, was devalued because they were women.
1817 – economist Thomas Malthus studies possible cultural reasons
for differences in wealth of citizens.
1870- census in US ignores activities done in the home as part of
1890 Marx and Engels say housework is unproductive and encourage all women to get paid work outside the home even if it is digging ditches
1900s . The functioning of a family was still deemed a joint interdependence
where the earner, usually male, was given a family wage by some
employers and a tax deduction for supporting a spouse by government
to recognize the additional costs of operating a household of
several members, some of whom are unpaid.
1905 – Max Weber writes” The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”
arguing that a strong work ethic drives successful economics
1920- Robert Solow, Nobel prize winning economist devalues studying
culture as a factor of economic growth saying such studies end up
‘a blaze of amateur sociology”
1920s Women ask for equal voting rights with men and the right
to sit in government to make laws that concern them. They
are not asking to escape the care role but to be valued
while doing it.
1930 US – W. K. Kellogg, facing the US Depression and trying to keep his cereal company alive, shifted the three daily 8 hour shifts at his Battle Creek, Michigan plant to four six hour shifts. In that way he was able to hire 30 % more people albeit for shorter shifts. This reduced the city unemployment rate significantly. He also paid his workers who now did 6 hours shifts, as if they had done 7, for the first year and by the second year he was able to return them to pay as if for 8 hours for the 6 hours. It turned out that with new technology and the new schedule, productivity was actually up.
1932 US – US Department of Labor interviewed some of Kellogg’s workers and found that nearly 8% said they preferred having a six hour shift because it gave them more time for ‘family activities and home duties and leisure’. One woman said she was able to get her housework out of the way and still have time to read, walk and write. One said she was able to get more caning done and that was a project her whole family enjoyed. Others spoke of their sons opening up to talk more freely, and of feeling that the increase in family time made them better parents. One man wrote that the six hour shift let his Dad be with his four boys at ages when it mattered. In the 1940s a survey found that the clubs, churches, community service and amateur sports also were thriving with the 6 hour shifts. In the second world war President Roosevelt mandated a longer work week but in 1945 when the war ended, staff at Kellogg’s again voted to return to the shorter shift. One worker said ” I need the extra money but I need the time at home more,”
1940s British economists to tally resources for fighting the war count the value
of all goods and services bought and sold per year. When the war ends
the UN chooses this same tool to tally the relative wealth of all nations
and calls it the Gross National Product. It is assumed to accurately show
the relative strength of a nation, counting changes in manufacture, production
and sale of goods. It has no column to notice any unpaid care roles in the
1945 UK During world war II British economists had an idea of add up resources for fighting the war and they decided to tally two things- the value of all goods and all services bought and sold each year. When the war ended the UN chose that same tally tool to understand relative wealth of al nations in the world and called it the Gross National Product. It was assumed to show the relative strength of a nation, since it showed changes in manufacture, production and sale of goods. It has no category of unpaid care roles, unpaid household or community work
1953 The UN sets up a System of National Accounts as a guide for nations of how
to track economic activity, recording how production is distributed among
consumers, businesses, government and foreign nations and how income
generated is modified by taxes and flows to these groups. It looks at
how these activities result in consumption, savings and investment.
The tally does not impute any value to unpaid household labor or volunteer
work. The system is imitated in most UN member nations and is
endorsed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the
Statistical Office of the European Commission.. The system is updated
in 1964, 1968, 1993 and 2008 and still does not value or even ‘see’
1960s Some women express desire for more status and some feel
it is attainable only if they leave the care role and enter the
paid work world where status and money are already
given to men. Governments respond to this new move for
women by creating tax policy to encourage such equality,
equal pay at job, equal access to business hiring and
promotion. The incentives to do paid work often include
disincentives to being caregivers at home, with reductions
in the spousal allowance, with moves away from household
based tax to individual based tax.
1978 Economist John Kenneth Galbraith in “Almost Everyone’s
Guide to Economics’ writes “Economists would get a very
sudden increase in the GNP by discovering and
including the unpaid labor of women”
1980s – Governments seeing value in having more taxpayers
short term further create incentives for women to have
paid work and disincentives to them being caregivesr
in the home, making maternity benefits but conditional
on paid work of the new mother, and subsidizing childcare
costs but only if care is provided by a non family member.
The role of caregiver is so devalued that is is dubbed
being ‘just a housewife’ and ‘not working’. Households
with only one earner or with one full time and one
part time earner, are penalized with higher taxes.
Pensions are tied only to earning and are not provided
for caregivers in the home for their role there.
1985- Canada – general social survey – childcare housework yard work and unpaid care of seniors are tallied, though not counted as economic activity
1986 – German sociologist Maria Mies writes ” Patriarch and
Accumulation on a World Scale” arguing that GNP
does not adequately value women’s care roles.
1988 New Zealand economist Marilyn Waring writes “If Women
Counted”criticizing use of the GNP as an indicator of
progress, saying that the way the tally ignores women’s
roles and the value of the environment has had terrible
consequences in economics and in globalization. She
points out that the GNP tally by valuing paid work, makes
a forest fire look like it is good for society because it creates
jobs for firefighters even though it ignores the huge loss
of a forest. She observes that a woman holding her child
is a woman at work and society depends on that work and
should value it. She recommends that nations tally
unpaid work in satellite accounts to the UN System of
1991 – The US along with other nations switches from the Gross
National Product tally to the Gross Domestic Product.
GNP is the market value of all goods and services produced
in one year by labor of the citizens . GDP does the same
tally but counts production based on geographical location.
Neither ones counts or values unpaid household labor,
unpaid caregiving or volunteer work as useful in the economy.
1993 – Robert Putnam writes ‘Making Democracy Work’ looking at the
role of what he calls ‘social capital’ in the economy. He studies how
communities were people are outward looking, read more newspapers,
take part in sports, are part of cultural associations are more likely
to vote, to have more efficient local government and to generate wealth
1995- UN Human Development report- observes that women’s unpaid work is worth $11 trillion annually, says only 1/3 of women’s work is paid
1995 UN Platform for Action commits all member nations to do a survey of women’s unpaid work
1997 – Economist Randy Albeida writes “Economics and Feminism; Disturbances in the Field” She notes that care work responsibilities explain time poverty often experienced especially by single mothers. Economist Sarah Gammage studies unpaid care work of women in Guatemala..
1998 – Canadian political scientist Isabella Bakker writes’Unpaid Work
and Macroeconomics” She presents papers about engendering
budgets and argues that when patients ae sent home from hospital
to recover from surgery government is assuming that there is
someone there who will provide the required care, for free.
She says that government depends on unpaid work like a
well that will never run dry. She argues that social reproduction
not power and production should be the focus of global
2004 – Luigi Guiso studies how communities with high social involvement of
citizens tend to invest more in stocks
2006 Economist Nancy Folbre writes ‘Gender, Empowerment and the Care Economy” . She says that work that involves connecting to other people, meeting their needs, care of the young and elderly and sick is a form of labor to which mainstream economics does not pay enough attention. She says this omission marginalizes women and children and undervalues their contribution to home and community.
2008 – Economist Riane Eisler writes The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics” saying caregiving should be made more visible in economic tally. She argues that GPD leaves out the household economy, nature and the volunteer community and suggests that social wealth be used as an indicator to show the huge return on investment of caring for people and nature.
2010 Canada – the long form census which tallied household work is discontinued. A Nat Household Survey to replace does not survey unpaid and household
2013 – Alberto Alesina studies paid labor force participation of women in Egypt, which are low, and rates in Namibia which are high. He attributes the difference to the fact that agriculture in Egypt used ploughs requiring upper body strength men have, while agriculture in Namibia focused on use of hand held tools at which women could excel. Study of culture linked to economics was a relatively new approach.
2015 US Bureau of Labor Statistics survey through time use paid work, personal care, social activity, exercise, volunteering and , taking care of children and adults though these are counted as useful in an economy.
2015 UK economist Mary Mellor writes “Public Money for Sustainability
and Social Justice” arguing that it is wrong to think of government
budgets as if they are the same as household budgets.She says
governments have the authority to issue new money but have
surrendered this to the commercial banking sector, which
now lends all the money people owe as debt. She wants a return
to the power of government to create a public currency as a debt-free
supply of currency to prioritize socially necessary expenditures.
2016- (US) Joel Mokyr writes “A Culture of Growth” suggesting that
economics should share ideas and not just be a ‘mindless piling
up of empirical facts”
2019- (US) Benjamin Enke studied pre industrial societies and found that those
in poverty were historically more exposed to pathogens, relied on kin support
more, risked travel less and ended up poorer missing trade opportunities.
2020 – European economics often is more generous in the funding of welfaer
payments than is America
2020 -Many feminist economists study varied aspects of unpaid work. Subsistence work such as collecting water to meet basic needs, is a vital activity that has no market value assigned to it. Unpaid market labor such as having a family member contribute to market work of someone else, unpaid is also common. Unpaid work includes volunteer work that benefits nonhousehold members such as flooding the local skating rink. There is a new category dubbed ‘care work’ to mean fostering of close personal and emotional interaction. None of these roles is valued in GDP economics.
B. FLAWS OF THE GDP WHERE IT DOES NOT VALUE CARE ROLES
1. Since GDP only counts flow of money, it treats as valuable any
paid job. This implies that a crime wave is good for the economy
because it leads to hiring more police officers, that having
people in distress is good because they then purchase more
medications and hire more personal counsellors.
It implies that when people deeply in debt turn to high
interest loan companies that is good for society because
it gives such loan companies jobs and that when students
have to pay high tuition and get bank loans that takes years
to repay this is good for the economy because it generates
income for the bank that can loan money to businesses.
Even though post-secondary students mired in debt
have to delay adult entry decisions into the economy
such as living on their own, buying a home, marrying
or having children the GDP does not count those as
It implies that if children can be lured into buying products
young, and become a key consumer demographic for
toys, food, fashion, video games, that that is good for
the economy regardless of the nature of what is purchased.
2. Since GDP counts money as the marker for useful work and also
by extension of personal’ worth’, it ignores the value
of personality and of the emotions that make people
nurture each other. By devaluing caregivers as
it deprives the role of ability to function
in society as consumers, and it demoralizes a vital
sector the economy depends on .
3. Since GDP is blind to caregiving and volunteer work it deprives
them ultimately of enough financial and moral recognition
to be able to function. The state risks ending up having to pay
much higher costs at professional salary levels to provide emergency care of
the vulnerable. The cost of ignoring unpaid labor turns out to be
higher to the economy that would be the cost of empowering it.
4. Since GDP counts money spent but ignores money that did not
have to be spent, it counts the cost of fighting disease with
drugs and surgery but not the value in preventing disease
with attentive nurturing, cleanliness, good nutrition.
Since it counts the cost of fighting a fire but does not
notice the value of responsible land management,
crop rotation, planting and prevention of drought
the tally ends up tilted. Since it counts paid care by
3rd parties as financial outlay but ignores financial
sacrifice and imputed costs of unpaid care, its tally
in the care sector becomes very tilted.
5. GDP that aims at continuous growth of productivity,
or goods and services and trade, and that aims at
ranking nations based on such tallies, creates a cycle
of its own. The encouraged demand for more products,
bigger houses, newer cars, latest cel phones and video
games spurs purchasing but also competition, with higher
costs of products, higher costs to operate a business,
corresponding higher demands for wages to fund the
rising cost of living, and spiraling inflation.
6 Purchases that are seen as good for the economy may discourage
time spent without purchased product, so a restaurant meal
even fast food or take out is seen as better for the economy
than a home- cooked meal. Care of a child by a paid stranger
and amusement purchased is seen as of more value to the
economy than is unpaid family time. Some have observed
that this has meant a government preference in career over
family in formal economics.
C. ALTERNATIVES TO THE GDP
Many groups have noted flaws in the GDP, and its omissions of care roles. However the expanded or alternate versions have not been officially adopted yet by most countries.
FISH – Fordham Index of Social Health – designed in 1973
-it includes a count of child poverty, child mortality,
drug abuse, high school dropouts, income inequality
Gender- related Development Index GDI – developed in 1995
It tallies the wellbeing and wealth in a nation and also
how they are distributed between the genders
Genuine Progress Index GPI – designed in 1994
It tallies unpaid work, caregiving,crime, family breakdown,
volunteer work, pollution, income distribution, environmental
damage, cost of auto accidents
Gross Environmental Sustainable Development Index GESDI
It measures 200 nonmarket indicators including literacy, rights,
justice, resources. The standard of living is a standard of consumption
not income or wages.
Gross National Happiness Index used in Bhutan
It looks at psychological well-being
Gross Sustainable Development Product GSDP
It measures the cost of growth and examines social costs, health
costs, environmental impacts, quality of life
Happy Planet Index
It covers 153 countries and looks at personal well-being and
Human Development Index HDI – established in 1980
It look at 177 countries and counts health, education ,life expectancy
Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare – established in 1950
It looks at consumption, volunteer and household
work in 17 countries
OECD Better Life Index
It looks at housing and education
Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI)
It measures gender inequality in social institutions,
practices and legal norms in 100 countries
United Nations Human Development Index UNHDI
It measures the impact of economics on people, tallies health,
education, life expectancy, years of schooling