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What's so economic about the economy of care? (And why should we care?).

In recent years, the concept of "the economy of care" has been used to resuscitate a longstanding feminist debate on the inequitable distribution of domestic responsibilities between private households and the State, on one hand, and between women and men, on the other.

The reframing of this debate in terms of the economy of care is no coincidence, rather it stems from the importance of the economy in the configuration of all aspects of life in the context of capitalist societies. The concepts of efficacy, efficiency and rationality are the basis for all public policy; they channel our productive efforts and even have a major impact on the most trivial decisions of daily life.

In this context, the debate on the distribution of domestic responsibilities is linked to a notion of economy of care that makes reference to a rather undefined set of goods, services, activities, relationships and values related to the most basic and essential needs entailed in the existence and reproduction of people in our societies.

The concept of "care" invokes all those elements that nurture people in the sense that they provide us with the physical and symbolic elements necessary for our survival in society. Thus, care refers to the actions and goods by which people are fed, educated, kept healthy and able to live in a suitable habitat. Associating the term "care" with the concept of "economy" implies a concentration on those aspects of care that generate or contribute to the generation of economic value. In other words, the economy of care is particularly interested in the relationship between how societies organize the way in which people are cared for and how the economic system works.

The following article offers a brief review of the principle elements of this relationship and what it implies in terms of equity. (1)

The Economy of Care as a Vital Cog in the Economic System

In order to understand the social nature of reproductive work, we must first comprehend the historical relationship between the processes of reproduction and production. The capitalist system has gradually created a separation between both spheres--in the form of separate physical spaces, institutions, social organizations, regulations and cultures--that distinguishes paid "productive" labor from unremunerated "reproductive" labor. This separation helped to hide the linkages between the different types of work and their different processes. (2)

One of the virtues of the renewed debate on the economy of care is that it differentates between productive and reproductive labor, but with an understanding of the relationship between the two types of work and the existence not of two separate spheres but rather of a system that requires both dimensions. One of the most important consequences of this understanding is the recognition of the unpaid work of caregiving in the home and of its essential role in reproducing the entire social system.

Feminist economics (3) took up this idea and built a conceptual framework in which reproductive work is clearly acknowledged as "unremunerated caregiving" within the economic system. This paradigm recognizes that this unpaid work is essential because it produces a basic element that the economy needs to function: the workforce. Thus, the concept of social reproduction associated with the economy of care perceives this work as the sphere in which the workforce is reproduced.

The unremunerated caregiving that occurs in private homes provides the productive sectors with workers who are fed, kept clean and healthy and educated. In other words, the present and future workforce are not only physically reproduced in the domestic sphere, they are also taught the essential values of work: respect for hierarchies; how to obediently follow instructions; the importance of being on time; etc. This "ready-made" workforce is offered up to the productive sector at no additional cost. Thus, to the extent that it is not explicitly recognized, unremunerated caregiving is a sort of subsidy to capitalist accumulation.

On the other hand, caregiving also takes the goods and services that people acquire to meet their needs and desires and transforms them into an effective state of wellbeing. It turns groceries into a hot meal, cleaning products into a clean home, the elements of entertainment into a family celebration. Caregiving turns good and services produced by the market into more elaborate, transformed goods and activities that truly define one's standard of living, but which incorporate more work than the basic market good.

Finally, the organization of caregiving within the home itself is also a mechanism of labor force regulation. The division of "productive" and "reproductive" responsibilities among the members of the household implies that only some of the members are fully incorporated into the market as part of the productive workforce.

At the root of this distribution of productive and reproductive work among women and men is the sexual division of labor, which implies an asymmetrical division of responsibilities.

Under the Economy of Care, Not All Workers Are Equal

The sexual division of labor was founded upon a general notion that women are naturally better at caring for children, and therefore, we have a comparative advantage in providing care for others, including the sick and the elderly, as well as the other adults in the household. Indeed, when seen through an economic lens, the fact that unremunerated caregiving within the home is primarily performed by women appears to be the result of a simple process of specialization in view of greater efficiency.

Nonetheless, it is clear today that this notion of "women's work" lacks foundation and that women's "specialization" in caregiving is a social construction based on hegemonic patriarchal practices. As Folbre (2001) explains, the traditional patriarchal paradigm did more than focus women's specialization in childrearing; it also channeled women's specialization in providing other sorts of caregiving services. Economic dependence implied that a woman's welfare depended on that of her husband or father, thus providing a powerful incentive to care for the needs of others. The patriarchy was not merely a means of privileging men; it was also a strategy for ensuring an adequate supply of caregiving services.

According to information available from a number of countries, primarily based on time-use surveys, there continues to be an unequal division of caregiving tasks within the home. (4) For the most part, women are responsible for more of the domestic work, and their tasks require a longer amount of time. The division of labor depends upon the household composition (especially whether or not there are minor children, older persons or people with illnesses, limited mobility or other special needs), the employment status of the other adults living in the household and the availability of and access to external caregiving services.

And so we discover another piece of the puzzle. How caregiving is organized depends upon the institutional context, which includes not only unremunerated caregiving within the home, but also provision of caregiving service by public institutions and by private providers (market services). The greater the possibility of accessing these extra-domestic caregiving services, the more freedom there is for the members of the household to utilize a range of alternatives for organizing care and the more opportunities there are to combine caregiving with other activities, primarily paid work in the labor market.

This institutional perspective on the organization of care can be summarized as follows: throughout history there have been four sorts of organizations involved in the distribution of care: civil society institutions (organized religion, volunteer services, foundations); the State; the market; and families. Under this perspective, the provision of care is linked to the production of welfare and the unique combination of each of these institutions with the notion of welfare regimes. (5)

The institutional combination of these elements determines two processes of family and individual autonomy in the provision of and access to welfare and care: on one hand, the level of "demercantilization" or the degree to which the welfare regime is able to guarantee real economic and social rights for its people, beyond the mechanism of market exchange; and on the other hand, the level of "defamiliarization" or the degree to which the welfare regime is able to reduce individuals' dependence on their families or rather to increase people's control over their resources, regardless of the reciprocity of their families or spouses (Sojo, 2005).

In this regard, according to the classification system suggested by Aguirre (2005), there are two ideal models of welfare regime: i) the family-based regime, in which the primary responsibility for welfare and care corresponds to the family unit and overwhelmingly to women within these kinship networks; and ii) the non-family-based regime, in which the caregiving responsibilities are channeled towards public institutions and private providers (the market). (6)

Under the first model, since the family and the sexual division of labor is central to the ideological framework, strategies and compensatory measures are focused on allowing women to shoulder their work outside the house as they continue to fulfill their caregiving responsibilities. In this case, public policies merely consolidate the traditional division of caregiving work.

The second model is more open to policies that reconfigure traditional roles and change the division of public and private. In this case, the State is largely responsible for childcare, providing significant support for parents who need care for their children and encouraging public institutions and private businesses to provide facilities for women workers who wish to reconcile their paid jobs with their caregiving work (Batthyany, 2004).

Nonetheless, even in those societies in which caregiving services are primarily provided by public facilities or by private services, traditional gender roles still hold sway. Regardless of their societies' welfare regime model, women continue to be responsible for most caregiving work, whether within their own home or in a public or private facility, whether they perform these tasks as unremunerated volunteer work or as a paid job.

The Organization of the Economy of Care Breeds Inequity

The social and cultural process of women's specialization in caregiving goes hand in hand with the division of the reproductive and productive spheres, the invisibilization of the relationships between these two realms and thus women's exclusion from and segregation in the labor market. This reality is summarized in the concept of domesticity (Williams, 2000), which is defined by two characteristics. The first is the organization of the labor market (work) around the notion of the "ideal worker" who works full time (and even overtime) and who spends very little effort on maintaining a home and caring for dependents. The second central characteristic is a system of caregiving that marginalizes those who provide these services.

Under the concept of the ideal worker, the forces of production demands a workforce that can take on fulltime employment, work extra hours beyond their regular schedule and relocate geographically if necessary. These workers must be able to count on some sort of domestic labor that sees to their needs, as well as the needs of the other members of the household, thus freeing them from any domestic responsibility.

The current notions of gender allow men to enjoy this domestic labor to a much greater extent than women, and this inequity is even more evident among lower income sectors that are not able to hire domestic help. It is very common for women to combine their paid work with their domestic responsibilities, and they must often interrupt their work at specific moments during their life cycle (childbirth and early childrearing, when a member of the household is gravely ill, etc.). To a great extent, women can never be ideal workers, and therefore, they are relegated to part-time work or jobs that have fewer responsibilities. They also face serious limitations to their ability to develop as professionals. These situations result in gender discrimination in the labor market.

Women's segregation in the labor market is evident in many ways, but to summarize: i) women's employment rates are lower; ii) women have higher rates of unemployment and underemployment; iii) women are more likely to have precarious jobs; and iv) women continue to suffer from horizontal and vertical segregation--respectively, the fact that women's employment opportunities tend to be concentrated in jobs that are traditionally seen as "women's work" (public service, teaching, domestic work, etc.) and the "glass ceiling" that keeps women in lower-ranking positions.

The inequities that women endure in the labor market mean lower salaries than men who work in the same or similar jobs and therefore less economic independence, which consequently decreases the fundamental human right of autonomy. This situation is compounded by the increased difficulties that women face with respect to men in finding a job in work that they enjoy and do well.

The flipside of this reality is the increased marginalization of those who dedicate themselves to homemaking. On one hand, those who fulfill their domestic responsibilities are discriminated against in the labor market if they are also working outside the home, as well. On the other hand, those who "choose" to dedicate themselves to caregiving are often undervalued for their contributions to the home and to society. Furthermore, those who decide to offer their domestic services on the labor market as domestic workers or in other caregiving professions endure terrible working conditions and poor salaries, and the social value of their work is overlooked.

Even though progress has clearly been made in women's participation in the labor market, such changes have not resulted in a parallel participation of men in caregiving tasks. "Domesticity hasn't died, it has mutated" (Williams, 2000:3). In this regard, the gender inequity associated with domesticity today adopts more impersonal structural mechanisms, which are experienced in more fluid cultural forms. One consequence of this reality is the (re)production of the subordination, even though women increasingly act as individuals who are not under direct command of a man (Fraser, 1997).

The combination of domesticity with women's increasing insertion in the labor market has given rise to the consolidation of women's "double workday." (7) This term is used to describe the characteristics of the work that women perform when they put in a full workday outside the home and then continue to do the unremunerated work inside the home, and in some cases, they even manage to do community work, as well.

Women's multiple roles as wage earners, homemakers, caregivers for children, the elderly and the ill and as active members of their communities means that they have had to find ways to deal with these increasing demands on their time. In most cases, they compensate by reducing their hours of rest and leisure time (Floro, 1999).

In sum, the double (or even triple) workday means a deterioration in women's quality of life. Carrasco (2003) describes it as the expression of an equal or even greater conflict between obtaining economic benefits and caring for human beings, in the context of capitalist production that benefits from the processes of reproduction and sustainability developed within the home.

Despite this tension and the deficiencies in caregiving seen in Latin American societies, this issue is still not a priority on the public agenda, primarily because it is viewed as a private matter that should be resolved according to individual possibilities and decisions.

Transforming the Organization of Care, Improving Quality of Life

In order to understand more clearly the way in which the economic system works and its implications in terms of opportunities in the lives of women and men, we must examine the organization of social reproduction, which we understand as the reproduction of the workforce. Within this organization of social reproduction lie some of the basic aspects of gender inequity that reveal the difficulties that women face in entering the labor market and also in exercising their most basic social and economic rights.

Therefore, public policies that transform this current reality are urgently needed to promote a more equitable distribution of caregiving responsibilities, within the home and in society, as well as among women and men. For these policies to be effective, they must take into consideration the complexity and, above all, the heterogeneity of these diverse situations.

Today, in the context of a certain weakening of the "patriarchal family organization" and the renewed vigor of consensus around more orthodox economic policy recommendations, the urgent need to set the issue of care squarely on the public policy agenda becomes even more evident.

This debate should advance on two fronts. On one hand, there should be a discussion regarding the division of public and social responsibilities in caregiving versus individual and private responsibilities. We must discuss and change the current consensus that views caregiving as a private responsibility to be met within the home and, specifically, by women. On the contrary, this debate must propose greater social participation through actions by the State to meet the needs for the reproduction of the workforce and also through a more equitable division of these tasks among women and men.

On the other hand, we must also move forward in the discussion of alternative policies that would allow a reconfiguration of the current organization of care in our countries. In this regard, we must transform all the pertinent public policies into tools that challenge the dominant structures and that contribute to deconstructing the traditional gender roles in caregiving.

With regard to public policy initiatives in this regard, we must advance towards the transformation of the norms that currently regulate the elements of care, with regard to people's participation in the labor market. Policies to facilitate the reconciliation of family and work must be conceived of as policies for the home and not just for women. Above all, these policies must strive to transform and not consolidate the current division of responsibilities.

As part of these efforts to better appreciate caregiving, the State must adopt a much more active attitude with regard to the protection and promotion of suitable working conditions for those who provide these services. It must be kept in mind that caregiving services are just one aspect of a larger public policy challenge: informal labor and precarious employment in the labor market in our region.

The allocation of resources towards social spending in the provision of caregiving service should be a priority in the more general context of improvements in infrastructure and, therefore, the expansion of public spending through the broadening of the margins of labor. Unless the State assumes its responsibility in the matter and develops a comprehensive and integrated policy on caregiving, we will continue to confront the primary obstacles for an equitable organization of this care and for improved conditions of equity in the labor market.

The public provision of caregiving services should also contemplate the different needs of homes from very different socio-economic strata and should guarantee adequate access to caregiving for the neediest sectors of population, without offering the stigma of "poor services for the poor." In this regard, active government intervention in improving the social infrastructure (including transportation and housing) is essential for improving the conditions of caregiving.

The State must adopt a serious policy of consciousness-raising and cultural transformation to truly facilitate the equitable division of caregiving responsibilities within the home. For this cultural process to take place, progress must first be made to deconstruct the notion of the "ideal worker." In truth, what must be questioned is the pertinence of an organizational model founded on the logic of remunerated work, especially when jobs with good working conditions and fair pay seem to be an endangered species. On the contrary, we should bring back a broader concept of work, valuing all labor that is useful to society and reinventing new ways to organize work and the social aspects of labor.

Therefore, instead of striving for equity by merely promoting the incorporation of women into a labor market divided by gender, we should promote a transformation of the relationship between the market and the work performed within the home so that all adults--women and men--can enjoy their ideal notions of family life and employment.

In this regard, policies that aim to train women workers to fit the model of worker demanded by the current labor market are useless, as is the leeway given to businesses in their efforts to demand "ideal workers," for example, by allowing flexible hours. On the contrary, we need to undertake a range of actions (in legislation, education, employment regulations) to allow women and men to become the sort of workers that fulfill all the productive and reproductive needs of the society.

This new type of worker will be compatible with all the multiple possibilities of organizing caregiving. After all, this transformation should seek to broaden the margins of freedom so that all people will be able to choose the combination of productive work, reproductive work and leisure activities that satisfies their aspirations and desires.

July 2008


Aguirre, R. (2005) "Los cuidados familiares como problema publico y objeto de politica." Paper presented at the experts' meeting "Politicas hacia las familias, proteccion e inclusion socials." Santiago, Chile: ECLAC.

Batthyany, K. (2004) "Cuidado infantil y trabajo: ?Un desafio exclusivamente femenino? Una mirada desde el genero y la ciudadania social." Montevideo: CINTERFOR/ILO.

Carrasco, C. (2003) "La sostenibilidad de la vida humana: ?Un asunto de mujeres?" In Mujeres y trabajo: cambios impostergables. M. Leon, ed. Porto Alegre: REMTE, Marcha Mundial de Mujeres, CLACSO, ALAI.

Esping-Andersen, G. (1990) The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Esquivel, V. (2007) "Time Use Surveys in Latin America." Buenos Aires, mimeograph.

Ferber, M., and J. Nelson (eds.) (1993) Beyond Economic Man. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Ferber, M., and J. Nelson (eds.) (2003) Feminist Economics Today: Beyond Economic Man. Chicago-London: The University of Chicago Press.

Floro, M. (1999) "Double Day / Second Shift." In The Elgar Companion to Feminist Economics. J. Peterson and M. Lewis, eds. Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Folbre, N. (2001) The Invisible Heart. Economics and Family Values. New York: The New Press.

Fraser, N. (1997) Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the "Postsocialist" Condition. London: Rutledge.

Gough, I., and G. Wood (2004) Insecurity and Welfare Regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Social Policy in Development Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kabeer, N. (1998) "Dictadores benevolentes, altruistas maternales y contratos patriarcales: el genero y la economia domestica." In Realidades trastocadas. Mexico: Paidos.

Lo Vuolo, R. (1998) "?Una nueva oscuridad? Estado de Bienestar, crisis de integracion social y democracia." In La nueva oscuridad de la politica social. Del Estado populista al neoconservador. R. Lo Vuolo and A. Barbeito, eds. Buenos Aires: CIEPP, Mino and Davila Editores.

Marco, F. (2007) "El cuidado de la ninez en Bolivia y Ecuador: Derecho de algunos, obligacion de todas." Serie Mujer y Desarrollo No 89. Santiago, Chile: ECLAC, Agencia Espanola de Cooperacion Internacional.

Martinez Franzoni, J. (2005) "La pieza que faltaba: Uso del tiempo y regimenes de bienestar en America Latina." Nueva Sociedad 199:35-52.

Picchio, A. (2001) "Un enfoque macroeconomico ampliado de las condiciones de vida." Paper presented at the Conferencia Inaugural de las Jornadas "Tiempos, trabajos y genero" at the Universidad de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain.

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Williams, J. (2000) Unbending Gender. Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do about It. New York: Oxford University Press.


(1.) For an extensive treatment of these ideas, see Rodriguez Enriquez (2005).

(2.) I draw heavily on Picchio (2001) in this respect.

(3.) This school of thought has emphasized the need to incorporate gender relations as a relevant variable for understanding how the economy works and the different positions of women and men as economic agents and subjects of political economies. For the seminal work on feminist economics, see Ferber and Nelson (1993) and the more recent Ferber and Nelson (2003). See also

(4.) For a summary of available time-use surveys, see Esquivel (2007). For examples of the organization of care in Argentina and Uruguay, see Rodriguez Enriquez (2007), and for the cases of Bolivia and Ecuador, see Marco (2007).

(5.) The notion of welfare regimes is thoroughly addressed by Gough and Wood (2004) and Esping-Andersen (1990). For the application of this model in Latin America, see Lo Vuolo (1998) and Martinez Franzoni (2005).

(6.) This classification echoes that used by Batthyany (2004), who presents the model of the "breadwinning man" as the barometer for evaluating a society. This model is strong in family-based welfare regimes and weak in nonfamily-based regimes.

(7.) The rate of women's participation in the workforce has been increasing in most countries without a parallel redistribution of time dedicated to domestic tasks. In other words, we observe various forms of inflexibility in the division of domestic work that reflect social characteristics that hobble the process of equilibrium. The "rigidity" most commonly seen is in the substitution of women's labor by that of men (Kabeer, 1998). Clearly, women's increased participation in the labor market has meant a decrease in their leisure activities and not an increase in the amount of time that other members of the household dedicate to domestic work.

The author is a researcher with the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Cientificas y Tecnicas (CONICET, National Council for Scientific and Technical Research) and the Centro Interdisciplinario para el Estudio de Politicas Publicas (CIEPP, Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Public Policy) in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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Title Annotation:division of labor, caregiving, and home economics
Author:Enriquez, Corina Rodriguez
Publication:Women's Health Collection
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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Next Article:Caregiving services and social and gender equity: recovering the State's capacity for regulation and social protection.

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