mother and child, John H White, Flickr
There are few things I enjoy hearing more than affirmations of the value of childcare to the economy. In Ed Balls’ speech to Labour conference last week he announced that ‘childcare is a vital part of our economic infrastructure’, and I was all ears.
Feminists who have fought tirelessly for recognition of the role of women’s unpaid work in sustaining the paid economy might be forgiven for thinking that the Labour party really get it. That they’ve recognised how the monetary economy is built on swathes of unpaid childcare, housework and other caring activities done for free. Feminist economists have shown how this unpaid ‘care economy’ could be valued at a staggering 20% of GDP if it was paid at minimum wage.
Except that this isn’t what Balls meant at all. The childcare he praised was the small percentage of the total time spent caring for children that is now incorporated into the paid economy. He meant nursery schools in office hours, not work done by parents over all 24 hours. By increasing this nursery provision, parents can stay in paid jobs where the cost of childcare made it previously unaffordable. Since women make up the majority of lone parents and are more likely to quit work to care for children, Labour's promise to increase access to free childcare from 15-25 hours will enable more women to chose to stay in, or take up paid work. Good for women and good for the economy right?
Sure, increased childcare in the current economic system cannot be scoffed at. Enabling women with children to get paid work supports the financial independence of many who would otherwise be reliant on a partners’ income. And during austerity, increasing childcare allowances provides relief to families who are hit by shrinking benefits and go out to work to compensate (we’ll politely ignore for now that there isn’t any work, and where there is, it’s likely to be low-paid).
Independent access to income for women is clearly important. But lets be clear- this policy isn't about increasing women's life choices. It is a subsidy for women who do paid work rather than care for their children at home full time. And when a subsidy is offered to women who make one choice and not those who make another, it's less of a choice and more of a push. And by favouring this particular choice and celebrating these “hard-working families”, Labour wilfully ignores decades of crucial thinking by feminist economists about what gets to count as work, and consequently what is rewarded with income.
This extensive research exposes a persistent devaluing of women's unpaid caring work compared to waged work. Crucially, this unpaid work is essential to the functioning of capitalist economies, since the childcare and housework that first produce and then sustain the labour force act as a subsidy for capital. Yet because it is unpaid, it remains invisible in an economy where wages designate value. The Labour Party's incentives for women who participate in the paid labour market is completely ignorant to these insights, even as they offer to pay for a small amount of childcare in the waged economy. If a woman goes out to work, and puts her child in a nursery or pays a friend to care for her, she is, by Ed Ball's logic, contributing to the economy. But if she stays at home and looks after her child herself, she isn't.
The devaluing of care work in the unpaid economy spills over into the paid economy, where work that has been traditionally done by women for free is marked as unskilled and rewarded with poor wages and low status. Yet the Labour Party is silent on how their new childcare jobs will be high quality and well paid. Without a broader strategy to improve the sector, women will be passing on childcare to other women - often on lower wages.
If Labour are interested in policies that genuinely value women's unpaid work as well as women's life choices rather than instrumentalising childcare to boost the paid economy, they need to understand the nature of this work. Firstly, looking after children isn't a 9-5 job. Since women carry out a disproportionate amount of domestic work, even when they have a partner and do a paid job, they end up doing a double-day- returning from their workplace to an evening of childcare and housework.
Raising children and doing housework aren't only activities carried out disproportionately by women for free on which the whole economy depends. The term 'Social Reproduction'- which Rai, Hoskyns & Thomas take to mean biological reproduction and all the emotional work involved in maintaining familial relationships, unpaid production of goods and services in the home and in the community including care work of all sorts and volunteering, as well as the reproduction of culture and ideology – is useful for expressing the sheer scale of this work.
Ignoring the scale of this unpaid economy isn’t just an issue of a gendered distribution of labour and the resulting time poverty for women who overwhelmingly do this work. It's not good for society as a whole. The more we consider this time as ‘unproductive’ and inconsequential, the more we squeeze it out in favour of work that brings in a buck. Austerity measures epitomise this trend, but it can also be seen as part of an ongoing process in capitalist economies where the resources we have to reproduce society are eroded. Our economy is extracting much more from than it is investing in the work our society depends on. In Rai, Hoskyns & Thomas' words, we are in a state of social “depletion”. An individual's ability to carry out unpaid work is finite and cannot operate as a sponge to soak up the wet seeping from a scuttled welfare state.
The question we need to answer then is how can we invest in the crucial unpaid work of reproducing society that people- disproportionately women- do 24/7? It's not simple. When proponents of the Wages for Housework campaign proclaimed in 1976 “our aim is to be priceless, to price ourselves out of the market" they were exposing how attaching an hourly wage to this extensive often intangible work is impossible, it is the bedrock of society. Moreover, as we have seen, value in the form of wages is attached to certain types of activity and not others, determined in our current economic system by the interests of capital and only to those areas of work that capitalists are forced to pay for.
If we want to see evidence of the disconnect between the value of work to society and the wage that is or isn't assigned to it we need look no further than the pay afforded to those who caused the financial crisis and resulting misery for millions compared with the unpaid work of a mother raising a child. To complicate the problem further, in our Post-Fordist economy a swelling service sector has assisted the integration of certain socially reproductive activities into the paid economy. Here the distinction between unpaid and paid is blurred to the extent that the same activity might be at one time waged and another time not. Ultimately, the traditional and naturalised distinction between what should be paid and what should be done for free falls apart.
So what then should we be demanding instead? Calls for a shorter working week are important as they offer the possibility of more space for, as well as the potential for a redistribution of, unpaid work, in turn reducing time poverty. But where a shorter working week provides more time for unpaid social reproductive tasks in a wage-based system, a Basic Income, where everyone receives an income from the state as a right, offers an alternative to the ethical and practical inadequacies of this system.
Firstly, it implicitly recognises that all citizens contribute in different ways to social reproduction, many of which are not recognised through the allocation of a wage. The attribution of wages to some activities and not others, as well as the amount of money paid, occurs in the context of systems of value shaped by race, class, gender, sexuality and disability which we need to thoroughly dispute. It is an alternative with humility, which acknowledges our inability to attribute wages according to social value of activities, or even know which these activities are. Instead it allocates an income to everyone, affirming everyone's right to an income that can sustain them.
Secondly it dares to challenges the ideology of waged labour. The Labour Party's deep-seated moralistic fondness for waged work has been bolstered by an embrace of skiver rhetoric. As a result, their demands centre on the right to work, rather than the right to a degree of freedom from it. In 1976 Cox & Frederici said of the left “[it] is horrified by the fact that workers- male & female, waged & unwaged- want more money, more time for themselves, more power, instead of being concerned with figuring out how to rationalise production’. The Labour party seeks to rationalise capitalist production with a female labour force to ‘make work pay’. But workerism is a dead end for feminists. We need to be bold, polish up our insights and demand more for women and all who do not receive an income because their work is devalued.
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