Theories of Value
What if all the parents in the U.S. got up one morning and went on strike, demanding more recognition and support for the work they do?
It’s kind of a kooky question, but it calls attention to a central theme of research on care–the undervaluation (you could even call it “non-valuation”) of care that is provided outside the market. The time that parents devote to their children, for instance, doesn’t come with a price tag attached. Yet if parents were unable to provide that time someone would need to buy a replacement for it.
Since we have some empirical data showing how much time parents in the U.S. devote to their children, on average, it’s not hard to multiply the number of hours spent times a hypothetical wage rate and come up with a very approximate lower-bound estimate of the value of parental services. For some nitty-gritty details, see my new book, just published by Harvard University Press, Valuing Children: Rethinking the Economics of the Family.
The point of this exercise is NOT to argue that all parents should be paid a wage for their work, but to help analyze the ways that unpaid care subsidizes our market economy. What determines the supply of unpaid care services? Few parents literally go “on strike” but some uninvolved non-custodial parents do literally fail to do their job. Also, parenthood is becoming less universal–in most affluent countries, including the U.S., the percentage of adult women who choose not to raise children is growing. And overall birth rates are now way below replacement levels in many countries, including Italy, Spain, Japan, and Korea.
The scope for empirical research on these trends is enormous, and I plan to cover some specific themes in future posts and linked pages. But the more I work on issues of care valuation the more I am struck by the philosophical conundrum: how should we define the value of any good or service, separately from its market price?
This is the question that the classical political economists like David Ricardo addressed in the early nineteenth century, and I think it’s important to revisit it from a feminist perspective. So–this blog is going to include discussions of intellectual history as well as more policy-related empirical research.