October 1st, 2009 by folbre

I let this blog succumb to the great Lapse Disease to which many blogs are prone. But I have an excuse–I started posting weekly to the New York Times Economix blog and found this pretty demanding on top of my regular job.

Plus, many of my posts there have focused on care issues.  Anyway, I return to this blog with more experience, and hopefully, more stamina.

Another source of inspiration to me right now is a new course I am teaching in the Public Policy and Administration program here at UMass Amherst. I have established a blog for that (including syllabus, etc.) that might be helpful for others contemplating a similar course.

Jobs for Whom?

January 12th, 2009 by folbre

The case for “green jobs” took off last fall, when my colleagues at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) began publicizing their estimates of the potential jobs that could be created by public investments in conservation and alternative energy. I began wondering out loud and on line about the gender composition of the jobs that would be created.

Despite efforts to increase women’s participation in traditionally male jobs, such as construction, occupational segregation in the U.S. remains significant. Why not advocate for “pink jobs” as well as “green” ones–jobs in health, education, and home care that would provide more opportunities for women workers and also offer long run economic benefits?

An op-ed published in the Boston Globe by Randy Albelda made this point forcefully, as did one by Linda Hirshman in the New York Times. A group of feminist historians circulated a letter on line pointing out that President Roosevelt’s New Deal job creation programs were primarily aimed at men. As the graphic above suggests, the National Youth Administration did ask girls if they might be interested in “free classes in occupations.” But only about 20% of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) jobs went to women.

Last Saturday morning President-elect Barack Obama’s economic team published a report claiming that, if anything, the proposed fiscal stimulus would be skewed in favor of women. I am not persuaded by their estimate that women would get 42% of the jobs, which seems to be based on simplistic assumptions regarding the industrial composition of the jobs created. But maybe they know more than I do about the proposed job plans, since presumably they are the ones designing it.

I am more seriously troubled by their careless reasoning regarding the “skew.” I take their point that men have been harder hit by job losses over the last year. Only about 20% of the decline in payroll employment from December 2007 to December 2008 was female. On the other hand, about 34% of the increase in unemployment over that same period was female. Many women affected by the recession and stock market decline started looking for paid work.  As of December 2008, women represented about 47% of the civilian labor force. (Click for source)

As the recession continues, the indirect job losses will mount, and female and male unemployment rates are likely to converge. Keep in mind, also, that women earn less than men but are more likely to be sole supporters of children.

My concerns don’t override my support for the fiscal stimulus plan and, honestly, I’m not sure what the target impact for male vs. female jobs should be. But I am sure that investments in “pink jobs” could yield important benefits (see also Paula England’s op-ed on this point) . If the job-creation plan goes into effect, which I hope it will, we need to  monitor who gets what jobs–and at what wages.

P.S. A great piece on this topic was just posted on Women’s ENews. Plus the comments below make some very important substantive points.

What is She Worth? How to Value (Or Not to Value) a Woman’s Life

October 26th, 2008 by folbre

The 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund dispensed death benefits for female victims that averaged only 63% of those for male victims. Why? Special Master Kenneth Feinberg was instructed to use a formula similar to that used in U.S. courts, taking victims’ estimated future earnings into account. For more details, see his fascinating book, What is Life Worth? (Public Affairs, 1995).

Women earn far less than men over their lifetimes, partly because they devote less time to paid employment. U.S. courts often ignore or undervalue women’s other productive activities: doing housework, preparing meals, caring for family members, and volunteering in the community. Some states allow consideration of the value of such activities in wrongful death suits but others do not.

Legal precedents reflect a long–but largely unexplored–history of gender bias in political economy that has been challenged by feminists since the mid-nineteenth century. The powerpoint presentation you can access here provided the basis for my recent presentation in the Feinberg lecture series at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The lecture provided a brief intellectual history of debates over the”unproductive housewife” that help explain the gender-biased assumptions that continue to distort U.S. policies. It described the tools that feminist economists today are using today to estimate the value of non-market work. However, it also emphasized the need for a truly interdisciplinary–rather than purely economistic–approach to the valuation of both non-market work and human life.

My colleague in the Resource Economics department, Sylvia Brandt, noted that estimates of the value of human life used by government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency may also give short shrift to the value of women’s non-market work. We plan to collaborate on a more detailed analysis of this issue at some point in the future. Let us know if you have expertise in this area and might also be interested.


Nancy Folbre

The Motherhood Penalty

October 7th, 2008 by folbre

Most women know that having a child is costly and leaves them vulnerable to poverty. But most probably don’t know how these costs and risks actually measure up, especially considering important differences across women and their families. Even as you read this, highly-skilled researchers are figuring out how to “do the numbers.”

About ten years ago, a new genre of empirical research on the costs of motherhood within the U.S. was born—authored by Jane Waldfogel and entitled “The Effects of Children on Women’s Wages” [American Sociological Review 62:2 (1997): 209-17]. Closely akin to research by Heather Joshi and others on the British case, this article laid out a clear methodology for estimating the economic impact of motherhood controlling for important confounding factors such as education and labor market experience. A host of other studies have confirmed findings of a negative impact, spinning off additional experimental research by Shelley Correll and others on the unfortunate effects of revealing motherhood to a potential employer.

Today the UMass Amherst Sociology Department hosts a presentation by Michelle Budig and Melissa Hodges titled “Differences in Disadvantage: How the Wage Penalty for Motherhood Varies Across Women’s Earnings Distribution” (copy potentially available on request from The paper uses an innovative statistical method (quantile regression) to examine the relative size of the motherhood penalty for women at different points in the income distribution. The results suggest—counter to some previous research—that low-income women pay a particularly large penalty. This finding holds important policy implications—among them the need for major reforms of U.S. family policy.

I invite participants, readers, and the authors to add comments on the specifics of the article here—where they can be shared with a larger virtual audience.

Is it Work?

June 9th, 2008 by folbre

This ad from (a job-search site) caught my eye, a reminder that most people hope for a job that will be intrinsically satisfying. Neoclassical economists generally define work as an activity that is only a means to an end–people presumably work only until the utility of the additional income (or home-produced services) is no greater than the disutility of an additional hour of work.

I’ve never liked that definition, but to my surprise I just read one I liked even less, in a New York Times Freakonomics column published by Steven J. Dubner and Steve Levitt: They suggest the following: “It’s work if someone else tells you to do it, and leisure if you choose to do it yourself.” This definition makes it sound like neither self-employed nor self-motivated individuals do any work.

In a nice response published on the Freakonomics blog, Shoshana Grossbard explains how this definition ignores the kind of work that goes into making dinner for a spouse.

The original Freakonomics piece was inspired by a working paper by economists Valerie Ramey and Neville Francis, who use survey responses regarding subjective feelings of happiness to rank activities as work or leisure. A burgeoning literature explores these subjective rankings, and I’m captivated by a proposal by Alan Krueger and others that we develop more systematic forms of time accounting.

But I think we should make a distinction between subjective and objective measures of work, and come at the issue from both directions. In her classic Economics of Household Production, published in 1934, Margaret Reid argued that an activity should be considered work if someone could, in principle, be paid to perform it. Most time-use surveys either use this so called “third-party” criterion or ask whether an activity creates benefits for someone other than the person performing it.

This objective criterion is no less reasonable than an arbitrary cut-off point on a happiness scale, and provides a better measure of social rather than purely individual benefits. Efforts to revise our national income accounts (which don’t take anyone’s feelings into account) should define non-market work in objective terms.

If we developed National Happiness Accounts on the side, that too would make me happy.

Children as Pets

June 6th, 2008 by folbre


This recent New Yorker cover satirizes the notion that children, like puppies in a store window, are just another consumer good. I think the gender stereotyping is intended as a joke, though not all viewers would take it that way.

This children-as-pets notion is deeply embedded in our culture, and I’ve been fuming about it for years (See The Invisible Heart and, more recently, Valuing Children) . Unlike most pets, most children grow up to provide effort, energy, talent and tax revenues that benefit the rest of us. This is one reason why parental efforts deserve public support.

Debates over the economic significance of childrearing have shaped debates over taxation in the U.S. In a classic treatise of public finance published in 1938, Personal Income Taxation, Henry Simons wrote, “it would be hard to maintain that the raising of children is not a form of consumption on the part of parents, whether one believes in the subsidizing of such consumption or not.” (p. 140). In Agenda for Progressive Taxation, published in 1947, William Vickrey wrote

“This reduction of children to a status comparable to that of a household pet is hardly acceptable. Almost everyone will concede that the community has a greater interest in the welfare of children than in the welfare of pets, even though there may be widespread disagreement as the nature of that interest. A more satisfactory approach, on the whole, is to regard minors and other dependents as citizens in their own right.” (p. 292).

Ed McCaffrey’s terrific book Taxing Women points out that the Henry Simons’ view helps explain why child-care expenses aren’t fully deductible from taxes in the U.S. today.

Most economists today stop short of viewing childrearing as a productive contribution. When they talk about “human capital” they typically refer to educational inputs, taking parental inputs for granted. Or, they assign a value to human capital based on its future yield (net present discounted earnings) ignoring its historical cost. Some of these issues are discussed in Chapter 4 of the National Academy publication Beyond the Market (both Robert Michael of the University of Chicago and myself contributed significantly to that chapter).

Every Mother’s Day, the job search site publishes an interesting calculation of how a mother’s activities would be priced in the market. A paper I recently wrote with Jayoung Yoon assigns a very conservative, lower-bound replacement cost value to the time that parents devote to childrearing,(“The Value of Unpaid Child Care in the U.S. in 2003,” forthcoming in Jean Kimmel, ed., How Do We Spend Our Time? Recent Evidence from the American Time-Use Survey). Both offer a good antidote to the trivializing impact of images like the one above.

Servant Sisters

June 4th, 2008 by folbre


A guest post by Hande Togrul (, graduate student at the University of Utah:


Here I am as a seven-year old, dressed up for the first day of school, standing next to my evlat-lik–not my mother, or my aunt, or my sister, but my live-in pseudo sister–my caregiver. In the town of Mersin in Eastern Mediterranean Turkey, where I grew up, evlat-liks were customary members of many households, playing a role similar to that of didis in India, amahs in China, rejevaks in Haiti, or mammies in the antebellum United States. My family did not always treat Bahtiyar abla (abla means elder sister in Turkish) in a kindly way, and I always tried to stand up for her. She joined our household as a six-year old girl to become a domestic worker with few opportunities and little control over her own working conditions.

Both the International Labor Organization and non-governmental organizations like Oxfam and Save the Children are calling attention to the plight of underprivileged women and girls (and some men) around the world working as caregivers and domestic workers. I am conducting dissertation research on this topic in Turkey, and a brief article describing some of my field work, titled “As if she is family: the marginalization of unpaid household workers in Turkey” has been published in Oxfam’s journal, Gender and Development

I go back and forth between the high ground of theory and messy realities of daily life.

I don’t want to demonize or to romanticize my pseudo-sister’s experience. I want to understand its causes and consequences, and develop better policies for care provision.

Child Care Time

May 11th, 2008 by folbre


When I took this picture of my friend Gaela (who is a girl, not a cat), was I engaging in photography, child care, or both? What if I stayed at Gaela’s house while her parents stepped out to a party on a Saturday night, spending most of my time curled up on the couch writing a blog entry after she had gone to bed? Would I be providing child care?

Guest blogger Charlene Kalenkoski of the Ohio University Economics Department is doing research that addresses these questions:


The introduction of the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) a few years ago spurred research by U.S. economists into the time parents spend caring for their children, a valuable input into the production of child outcomes. But all time is not equal. For example, giving a child your full attention as a parent will have a different impact than just being in the same room with your child while you are watching TV.

Researchers have tried to account for child care of different “qualities” in different ways. One way is to look separately at time spent in child care as a primary activity (child care is the most important activity being done at the time) and child care as a secondary activity (child care is being performed, but some other activity like housework is reported to be the primary activity). Another way is to compare child care as a primary activity and passive child care (the time a parent spends in the presence of a child when child care is not the primary activity-perhaps a parent is watching TV while the child is playing in the same room). A third way is to separately investigate time spent in child care activities that are deemed development-oriented (such as teaching) and those that are not (such as supervising).

Gigi Foster of the University of South Australia, and I propose a fourth way of classifying parental child care time in a working paper soon to be published in Review of Economics of the Household. We propose classifying child care as either sole-tasked (the only activity being performed) or multi-tasked (child care is one of multiple activities being performed simultaneously). In addition to the intensity of child care time, this measure captures variations in the costs to parents of such time. Sole-tasked time has a higher opportunity cost. Our findings show that the classification chosen has significant implications for the determinants of parental child care time.


I want to add that children can impose supervisory constraints even when they are in another room. Some of my recent research in collaboration with Jayoung Yoon and others (“By What Measure?” and “What is Child Care?”) explores the empirical dimensions of supervisory time. I’m hoping to help organize a session on parental time-use at the upcoming meetings of the International Association for Time Use Research (IATUR) in Sydney, Australia, next December.

Measuring Progress

April 21st, 2008 by folbre


I’m in Paris for a meeting of a new Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. It’s a city that invites reflections on the past that can make the future shimmer.

Walking down the Rue des Francs Bourgeois in the Marais I recall an essay contest sponsored by a group of learned French scholars in 1759. They asked, “Has intellectual and economic progress contributed to the moral improvement of humanity?” The winner, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (smiling enigmatically on the left), elaborated famously on his basic answer: non!

Today, his answer seems less interesting than their question. Moral improvement will probably not be on the meeting agenda. Economists are much more nervous about measuring economic progress. Richard Easterlin’s paper observing that reported happiness in the U.S. has not increased along with Gross Domestic Product is finally getting the attention it deserves. A spate of books such as Richard Layard’s Happiness document yawning gaps between objective and subjective well-being. A recent paper by economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers grabbed headlines simply because its international comparisons held out the slim hope that money might increase happiness a bit, after all.

Neoclassical economists face an especially serious challenge to their assumption that more is always better. But virtually all economists praise Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as though it were another three letter abstraction that begins with G. I sometimes feel agnostic about possibilities for either economic or spiritual progress. But like Pascal, I prefer to wager on the positive.

I’m no economic atheist, but my religion needs reform. Preparing for the meeting, I realize, to my surprise, that the principles I want to nail on the cathedral door are moral ones: 1) We should care about future generations. This implies consideration of natural assets (such as forests and fisheries) and the sustainability of ecological services. 2) We should care about others who are alive today. This implies consideration of poverty and inequality on a global scale. 3) We should care about own capabilities: our health, our education, our self-awareness, more than our own consumption (which appears not to make us all that happy, anyway).

Any new measures of economic progress that redirect our attention away from GDP toward these broader concerns will be helpful. The devils, of course, are everywhere, including in the details.

Cat Care

April 14th, 2008 by folbre


Guest blogger Man Yee Kan, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford, pictured here with her cat Sammie, writes:

I came to Oxford from Hong Kong eight years ago as a sociology graduate student and soon after that met my partner Timothy, a philosopher who is also from Hong Kong. Our favourite hobby in Oxford is to visit cats near the canal and in colleges. We treat our cat Sammie like a son.

Why not have a ‘real’ child? We can’t afford it! Our parents are in Hong Kong and cannot come to help out. Private childcare in the UK is too expensive for us. In addition, our parents need our care. In Hong Kong, as in many Asian societies, adult children are expected to provide both financial support and personal care to elderly parents. This responsibility shapes public policies. For example, when we worked in Hong Kong, we received a parental care tax allowance.

My empirical contribution to the GeNet project examines changes in the time use of men and women over the life course and their implications for labour market earnings. Findings show that in the United Kingdom many women quit labour market work or change to part-time jobs after having a child. Accordingly, they increase their time spent on routine housework (e.g. cooking, cleaning, washing the dishes and doing the laundry) and family care and reduce the time on consumption and leisure. Men, on the other hand, tend to stay with full time jobs after having a child. Their routine housework time changes little, although time spent on childcare and non-routine types of housework (e.g. grocery shopping and household repairs) increases significantly (by about 80 minutes per day) after having a child.

Timothy is a good cat carer, so I think he would also undertake a lot of childcare if we had a child. In academic papers, housework hours of husbands and wives are often explained by simple bargaining models, where higher income relative to one’s partner predicts shorter housework hours. In reality, housework and care are intricately intertwined with power, love and feelings of identity.

Some scholars describe career women like me, who have opted for having a cat instead of having a child, as “work-centred” rather than “home-centred.” But my preferences seem to be affected by my environment. When I’m unhappy about my job, I’m more likely to dream about having a baby, and who knows how I’ll feel a year or five years from now… Meanwhile, I’m enjoying Sammie.