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Remember when Mika Brezezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, put out her book Knowing Your Value? It was advertised  as a “surprisingly honest and unexpectedly revealing look at gender inequality in the workplace.” Mika argued that women generally underestimate their own worth and, for this reason, don’t advocate vigorously for themselves, and thus don’t receive the pay raises and promotions that they are due.

Well, honey, let me tell you –  it’s not limited to the workplace.

Nurturing that same sense of self-appreciation and insisting on fair and just treatment is something women must do everywhere. First and foremost, women must understand the extent of the contribution they make to our children, families and households, and realize that the immense worth of these contributions entitle us to a significant say in how our national and public institutions promote our interests and economic security. Like Mika, we must stop underestimating the value of our activity. It is easy to fall into this trap, because most of us don’t notice that the game is rigged. Generally accepted economic theory simply ignores the economic impact of women’s productivity. This is a major reason why women are behind men in terms of economic security, political representation, and positions of authority and leadership.

Productivity in national terms is measured by a limited number of factors that represent a  skewed and incomplete picture of economic activity. For example, GDP  counts the manufacture and sale of cigarettes as a plus, the medical costs incurred for treatment of cancer a plus, the use of emergency services and sale of child-sized caskets following the Sandy Hook shooting and clean up after Hurricane Sandy a plus, with no offset for the cost in terms of human life, loss of property, human suffering, deprivation, losses of livelihood, businesses and so forth. GDP calculates strip mining and deforestation as productive. The way we label money changing hands as inherently positive in economic terms, regardless of what it’s for and the consequences of the transaction, is a big reason women continue to struggle.

Most women spend a lot of time performing unpaid domestic labor, even when we occupy almost half of the paid labor force.  Women bear children. We produce the milk that sustains them in the first months of life. We strive to keep them alive, safe and healthy through childhood. It’s a 24/7 job that takes about two decades per human child. Beyond basic survival, we develop our children’s human capacities. Our care work affords the next generation education, health and what they need to know to become fully functioning, tax-paying citizens in their own right. Our care work is the very foundation of the economy, the human infrastructure  upon which society rests.

Does this care work we do have economic worth? You bet it does! A brand new report from the Center for Partnership Studies and the Urban Institute, National Indicators and Social Wealth, explains “the integral role of care work in the economic success and overall well-being of a nation and its people”.  This unpaid domestic labor of ours delivers goods (breastfeeding, meal preparation, clean laundry, safe homes) and services (transportation to soccer practice, learning how to share,  care during childhood illnesses, modeling how to hold a job) that would otherwise have to be bought on the open market or provided by a government. Citing federal data, the report states that women in the U.S. spend 26 hours per week on “non-market home production.” Yet, do we account for the value of this household production that our families consume? No. Can a nation’s overall economic activity be accurately measured without it?  No, again.

The National Indicators report makes plain how much real work is being left out in the way we gauge our economic progress. In Australia, research revealed that unpaid care work performed between 2009 – 2010 was worth $650.1 billion. This represents half again the figure of Australia’s GDP for that period. Data collection in Switzerland found that if unpaid domestic labor were counted in national GDP, it would have made up 40 percent of the total. U.S. researchers did similar tallies in 2010, and figured that if all the unpaid domestic labor performed that year were to be added into GDP, the figure would expand  by 80 percent.

Nancy Folbre, a maternal economic expert who contributed to the National Indicators report, estimates the paid labor force would have to increase to four or five times its current size to replace the care work that is currently provided within families. Usually by women. For free.

In reality, “traditional women’s work,” which is so poorly esteemed and little regarded, is the starting point for every other social interaction. Society is nothing but  human infrastructure, and we are the ones who make it happen. Riane Eisler, an expert in the economics of carework and quoted in the report, says:

“Especially in our time, when ‘high-quality human capital’ — flexible, creative people who can work in teams and think in long-term, not only short-term, ways — is essential for economic success, it can be argued that the production of this capital through the caregiving activities still generally categorized as ‘reproductive work’ is actually the most productive of all work.”

Humans are not born with all they need to survive and thrive. Parents, and especially mothers, create and cultivate the human capacity that makes the world go ’round.  It is the staggering value of the work that we do which gives us the right to put paid sick days, paid family medical care, and caregiver credits for Social Security on our national policy agenda. We are entirely justified in asking for flexible, non-traditional, workplace policies that reflect the reality that everyone of us will be a care giver and a care receiver at different times in our lives. The fact that the majority of mothers with young children work for money outside the home (while still working to provide for their families’ needs inside the home) renders the issue of maternity leave, maternal employment, and high-quality, affordable child care a legitimate issue of national concern. The longer we behave as if what we do isn’t economically significant, the longer we deny ourselves the economic, political and social influence that we deserve.

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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