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The Economics of Care

From the collection Gender Inequality

Care, as Folbre discusses in the interview, is a vast territory that extends across the frontiers between the economic and the noneconomic, the public and the private. Some 26 million people provide unpaid health care services in households. Commercial care is increasing, in part because of the aging of the population and the increased participation of women in the labor market. Children, the sick and the elderly still need to be looked after, and there are fewer people at home to look after them. Conditions of work in the care industries are poor, with low pay and little training; fewer than half of all child-care workers receive full health insurance, for themselves or their own children. The quality of care is also often poor; some 40 percent of nursing homes repeatedly fail health and safety inspections.

But care is significantly undervalued, particularly in an economic sense, Folbre argues, in both the household and in the labor market. In order to prosper, a society requires a continuing flow of individuals, knowledge and dispositions (such as reliability or inventiveness or trust). These resources can be thought of as flowing from a stock. But the stock is itself produced in large part by care. The measurement of gross domestic product involves a heroic effort to impute a value to the services provided by the stock of owner-occupied houses, as Folbre points out; no such effort is made to impute a value to ”happy, healthy and successful children.” It is something that does not readily lend itself to an array of mathematical economic models.

And there are associated problems when one tries to level the playing field, for example, via “paternity leave”, because parental leaves, whether by mothers or fathers, is generally associated with lower pay and benefits. Many employers consider the ideal worker one who is unencumbered by any limits on scheduling or hours of work. How to solve that particular conundrum is amongst the many topics Folbre discusses.

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