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Feminist economist Folbre on valuing unpaid work

For feminist economist Nancy Folbre,conventional measures of growth like the gross domestic product are not just incomplete and inadequate,but “truly perverse”.

Written by Antara Das | New Delhi |
December 17, 2009 1:12:43 am

For feminist economist Nancy Folbre,conventional measures of growth like the gross domestic product (GDP) are not just incomplete and inadequate,but “truly perverse”.

While it is tempting to celebrate a growth in GDP or participate in a “GDP race”,there is a need to think “more critically” about GDP,Folbre,a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and associate editor of the journal Feminist Economics,told a gathering in Delhi this evening.

Folbre delivered a lecture on ‘How Should We Value Unpaid Work? Theory,Methodology and Estimates’,the second in the series Distinguished Lectures on Economy,Polity and Society organised by Delhi University’s Institute of Economic Growth.

Folbre spoke on the importance and implications of the economics of unpaid family work,especially care work for children,the sick and elderly,which was often not adequately measured in labour force surveys,leading to profoundly wrong measurements of living standards and economic output.

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One way to impute value,Folbre said,was to consider a situation where all unpaid care services within the family were withdrawn,and replaced by paid wage rates. In Folbre’s study,which was based on US data,the replacement cost valuation for unpaid child care came to $33,000 for women and $16,000 for men. These figures,however,ignored whether every care job could be substituted,given the role emotional attachment played in such relationships,or the wage rate fluctuations in the market if unpaid family work was suddenly withdrawn.

While countries like Australia,the US and those in the EU have been conducting time-diary surveys to document care work,such work was still at a nascent stage in India,which had had pilot surveys conducted in six states,with Haryana emerging as the state having the highest female unpaid work. It was generally believed,Folbre said,that in India,investing in public infrastructure like water facilities might significantly reduce unpaid work for women.

The lecture was chaired by economist Lord Meghnad Desai. He said while it was an attribute of the establishment to create arcane obstacles to new work,it was necessary to “unthink” to accommodate new strands of thought.

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