Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Jobs for Whom?

Monday, January 12th, 2009

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

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

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

Is it Work?

Monday, June 9th, 2008

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.

Servant Sisters

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008


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.

Measuring Progress

Monday, April 21st, 2008


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.

When a Commodity is Not Exactly a Commodity

Friday, April 4th, 2008

Every week, the journal Science complements its published articles with one or more “Perspectives” offering a brief and informal summary of research on an important topic. I was thrilled to be invited to submit one of these recently, and chose to focus on the impact of personal interactions and emotional connections on the economics of care services.

Forced to boil down the soup I have been studying for years to a scant page and a half, I was nonetheless pleased with the resulting concentrate, entitled “When a Commodity is Not a Commodity.”

I particularly liked a phrase that came to me late at night while I was responding to an editor’s query–one that offers a kind of funky analogy to the Heisenberg principle that efforts to measure the location of something can change its location. Care work typically involves a kind of exchange that changes the exchangers.

I did not have the time or space to fully develop links to ongoing research in behavioral or experimental economics, and am hoping that my friends, including UMass Economics graduate students Phil Mellizo and Wesley Pech, might be willing to offer some comments on these…

The graphic here is based on a cheap knockoff of a sign I bought from a tourist kiosk at Covent Garden while at a conference in London last weekend. I added the red letters, which effectively convey the main point of the article. Care work motivated by love as well as money, and the interactions between these two are complicated.

I began work on a manuscript now entitled Economies of Care while visiting at the Russell Sage Foundation in 2005-2006. Slow going, but I’m now up to Chapter 6. I gave a presentation based on this at the GeNet conference I attended in London and will soon post a description of that event along with the bare bones of my powerpoint presentation.

Lands of Possibility

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008


The social democracies of Northwestern Europe offer many varieties of inspiration for the United States. My favorite analysis of progressive family policies remains Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyer’s Families that Work (Russell Sage, 2003). It addresses issues of gender equality as well as child wellbeing and develops a nicely balanced proposal for combining expansion of publicly provided child care with paid family leaves and increases in paternal participation in childrearing. Plus, it actually explains how this could happen and what it would cost.

Sociologist Erik Olin Wright at the University of Wisconsin organized a conference around the Gornick/Meyers proposals as part of a series of projects envisioning “Real Utopias.” The interdisciplinary discussion was terrific (see the conference website), and is leading up to a special issue of the journal Politics and Society and an edited volume to be published by Verso. An essay that I wrote for this project emphasizes the need to go beyond family policy to a broader project of rethinking and restructuring the care economy as a whole. Erik keeps pushing me to get more specific. I’m trying!

Meanwhile, international discussions of family policy provide rich food for thought. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has published a comprehensive report called Babies and Bosses (Europeans seem really worried about below-replacement fertility rates and the need to get more mothers into paid employment). The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has published two terrific reports that provide a model for discussions that should be taking place in more countries: Striking a Balance and It’s About Time: Men, Women, Work, and Family.

Also worth noting are recent changes in family policy in Korea, another country worried about below replacement fertility rates. Since I now have TWO brilliant Korean graduate students working with me, I’m trying to talk them into writing a guest blog on what is going on there. I’m also writing to friends in Taiwan and Japan to see what they have to say….

Buying Care

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008


At a Women’s World conference in Korea two years ago some community artists laid out a large piece of canvas on smooth ground, along with pencils, markers, and paints for passersby to express themselves. The resulting piece of collective art was tapestry-like, with a layered intricacy exceeding that of most renegade graffiti.

My camera framed one particular rectangle within it that featured a heart outlined in red paint, the word “love” printed in red crayon, and the word FREE painted in large pink capitals. Two smaller hearts, in pink and sky blue, are evident, a mysterious letter R, some numbers, patches of dark blue, several yellow swirls, and other background scribbles. Something complicated but compelling is pictured here.

This photograph introduces my comments on Viviana Zelizer’s recent book, The Purchase of Intimacy, a masterpiece of qualitative reasoning about quantitative things. Much of economic sociology bears the imprint of the University of Chicago’s most Rational Economic Man. Viviana cleans the slate and turns the tables, explaining how this man’s picture of exchange oversimplifies our lives. We all use money to buy things. But our uses can have different meanings and, as a result, different consequences.

Standard economics relies heavily on a polarity called “for love OR money.” Individuals are assumed altruistic within families but selfish within markets. “Work” is defined as an activity performed only in return for money. The bright conceptual line creates an illusion of separate territories. Look closer, however, and the boundaries begin to fade.

The Purchase of Intimacy offers important examples of transactions that involve both love and money. It reveals a complex interface between market and non-market activities. Like the new behavioral economics influenced by the work of Dan Kahneman and other psychologists, it demonstrates the impact of contexts and frames on individual decisions.

I value Viviana’s critique of the “hostile worlds” hypothesis. While my research often takes a more quantitative turn, I too argue that many transactions lie somewhere on a continuum characterized by surprising combination of calculation and affection. I emphasize the impact of emotional connection on the quality of paid care services and also develop estimates of the economic value of unpaid care services.

Yet I am less optimistic (or perhaps just less cheerful) than Viviana about the ways in which this continuum, this spectrum, is evolving. As markets expand, so too does our ability to interpret and mediate them. But market expansion often has dislocating effects on those who lack sovereignty within it—not just children, the elderly, the sick or disabled, but all those who lack adequate independent access to human and financial capital.

You can read the full version of this article in Word format. Or you can read a PDF version published in Accounts, the Economic Sociology Newsletter in Spring 2007 (along with comments from other scholars on Viviana Zelizer and a response from her). You can view or download a powerpoint presentation that illustrates this article here.

What is Care?

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008


My all-time favorite popularization of care issues is the comic book Adventures of Carrie Giver, available from T.R. Rose Associates. I like its emphasis on extending the current Child Credit to families providing care for anyone–not necessarily a child.

But I think there’s a serious problem with this proposal as it now stands–a problem that characterizes much of the current advocacy literature. It’s not clear what care is–how it is defined. The focus seems to lie on care for a dependent. Care provided to (or exchanged with) another adult is not “counted.” But its not easy to define “dependency” apart from obvious age ranges or serious health problems.

Sometimes care is defined in terms of assistance with so-called Activities of Daily Living (ADLs). This makes a lot of sense when focusing on individuals with health problems. But measurements of the level and type of assistance often vary. For an illustration of this problem, which also makes the best of the available data, see Mary Jo Gibson and Ari Houser’s report published by the Association for the Advancement of Retired Persons (AARP), entitled Valuing the Invaluable: A New Look at the Economic Value of Family Caregiving.

The most puzzling aspect of this report is its failure to include–or even discuss–issues of child care. As someone who got interested in care via work on the costs of children, I find it strange that the term “family caregiving” is often reserved for care of the elderly.

I think this nomenclature reflects the fractured structure of care advocacy –organizations working on child care and for elder care don’t seem to talk to one another much, and of course they are often pitted against one another in budget battles. Also, advocates for greater public support for family care (whether of children or the elderly) often seem disconnected from efforts to improve wages and working conditions of the employed caregivers that often collaborate with them…such as child care workers and home care aides.

We really need to develop a more unified analysis of the “care sector” as a whole.

A Nod to Click and Clack

Friday, February 15th, 2008


Today I decided to call this blog Care Talk and use it as a vehicle for coordinating efforts to build an interdisciplinary network for research on care issues. OK, it’s not a radio show, but National Public Radio’s Car Talk with Click and Clack provides a great model for dialog and problem-solving…

This particular engine has been running for some time, but is getting into gear now with my efforts to write a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation for an Interdisciplinary Graduate Education and Training Grant (IGERT). With the help of the Center for Research on Families (CRF) at UMass Amherst, I have assembled a small group of interested faculty at UMass Amherst and also connected with a larger statewide group of researchers to form a Massachusetts Care Policy Network. Both these specific efforts could build on and contribute to larger national and international efforts.

I’m starting out small here, with just a few good links and some regular posts reacting to what is going on in the world of care research. I will gradually add some audio podcasts and powerpoint shows that could serve as resources. I hope that readers will contribute by adding comments and making suggestions–and perhaps developing their own blogs on this topic. You should be able to subscribe by clicking on the RSS feed, but honestly, I haven’t totally figured this out myself yet.

Let me start with a brief description of two important links that I will enshrine in the blog roll. The International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) holds two annual conferences that are venues for important research on care issues, and also publishes the journal Feminist Economics. Take Care Net is a policy-oriented national network mostly organized and sustained by the amazing Bob Drago at Penn State. The latest greatest post there concerns a survey of all the presidential candidates on work-family issues back in December, and there’s also a blog on that site. In fact, I contributed to it about a year ago using the same title as I gave this blog.