Nancy Folbre: Raising children is socially valuable work, social programs that support it are a form of payment
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.
With all the brouhaha and indignation by Republicans and others about some suggestion that Ann Romney doesn’t really work ’cause she’s working at home, that raises the question, well, if you really believe that unpaid work at home is real workâ€”and I think obviously most people doâ€”then shouldn’t it be given a value by society?
Now joining us to talk about exactly that is Professor Folbre. She’s a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her research explores the interface between political economy and feminist theory. And her new book coming out in the summer is For Love and Money: Care Provision in the United States. Thanks very much for joining us.
NANCY FOLBRE, PROF. ECONOMICS, PERI, UMASS AMHERST: Pleasure to be here.
JAY: So take up this question, ’cause you’ve been studying it. If we really believe this unpaid work is worth something, shouldn’t we then do something about that?
FOLBRE: Well, the first thing we should do is change some of our public policies regarding access to public assistance. You know, we currently impose a work requirement on single mothers on the grounds that they shouldn’t get assistance unless they’re working. But if we go along with the notion that work at home, being a stay-at-home mom is really important work, as I think a lot of people have with the discussion of Ann Romney’s career, we should recognize and value the work they do and not require them to seek paid employment.
JAY: And so what would that look like if in fact there was such public policy? How would that be done? What would that mean in terms of our economy and how income is distributed?
FOLBRE: Well, in terms of public policy, it means that we wouldn’t have such stringent requirements for access to temporary assistance for needy families. It has implications for the earned income tax credit, which right now is conditional on paid employment. And I think it would basically put into place some policy changes that would probably reduce poverty among single mothers and kids. So that’s one really big, big change that could have a bigâ€”you know, an immediate impact.
But there are some longer-run issues too. For instance, when we look at income inequality or income distribution, we don’t factor in the value of the services provided by women or men who are staying at home and providing services for family members. And thatâ€”but that is worth some money. And so we should really factor that into our calculations of income distribution.
JAY: So it’s kind of hypocritical to say that it’s real work, which Romney and others say at the moment, and then say there’sâ€”you cut back on social programs that in a way are compensation for that work, even if it’s not like payment directly, at least through these social programs that work is recognized and supported.
FOLBRE: Yeah. I mean, the basic point is that raising kids is work thatâ€”it’s not just for fun, it’s not just pleasure, or it’s not just satisfaction to parents who do it. It also provides important public benefits. It creates a future labor force, future citizens, future taxpayers. And, you know, if those parents weren’t doing it themselves, somebody would have to be paid to do it. So, yeah, that’s why we should be recognizing it more fully than we do now.
JAY: And I guess people that have been following this story know that Mitt Romney actually argued this exactly opposite way when he was governor of Massachusetts, where he said that you should actuallyâ€”after women have been out of the workforce having children for more than two years, they have to get back to, quote, “work with dignity”, as if the work at home wasn’t dignified.
MITT ROMNEY, GOVERNOR OF MASSACHUSETTS: When I was governor, 85 percent of the people on a form of welfare assistance in my state had no work requirement, and I wanted to increase the work requirement. I said, for instance, that even if you have a child two years of age, you need to go to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.
JAY: Now, a lot of people have been talking about women and their vote in this upcoming 2012 election and the fact that it’s leaning heavily towards President Obama, and they’re pointing to the sort of right-wing takeover pushing the Republican debate far to the right and taking up issues like contraception and such. But you’ve written that this is actually, maybe, a reflection of something more profound that’s been happening with women in the workforce, this disenchantment with right-wing politics. Could you explain what your work has shown?
FOLBRE: There are a lot of reasons why women are more likely to support Obama right now than Romney, and some of them have to do with these immediate policy debates between Republicans and Democrats over issues like contraception, abortion, rules regarding pay discrimination, and so forth.
But there are also some deeper trends at work. I mean, womenâ€”for one thing, women have different economic interests than men today, because many are likely to be separated or divorced or not married or raising kids on their own. And that means their economic fate is less closely linked to that of men than it has been in the past. So not so much my research, but the research of several other economists has suggested that the decline in marriage has driven a kind of wedge between the political interests of men and women. In general, women benefit more from social programs that provide support for child rearing and for social safety net type programs. So there’s a pretty definite difference of interest between men and women on those topics.
JAY: And that’s shown up historically as well. It’s not just a recent phenomenon. There’s been a trend for some time of women supporting social safety net programs more than men because they feel this more direct responsibility in terms of child rearing.
FOLBRE: Yeah, that’s right. And it’s not entirely a function of the divorce rate or the marriage rate or differences between men and women. In general, even married women who, you know, are pooling income with a husband in general have supported programs that involve social spending for dependents more than men have. So I think that’s kind of a reflection of the traditional gender division of labor that because women are more likely to take on the care of children or the sick, disabled, frail, elderly, they generally are more likely to favor government programs
JAY: But then there’s an interesting point you make in one of your blogs you’ve written recently that there is a class basis there as well, though. Wealthier women who are less dependent on the social programs tend to vote more conservatively or more for Republicans than people who are more dependent on these social programs. So there’s a class character of this within the gender question.
FOLBRE: Yeah, there’s definitely a kind of intersection between gender and class and race/ethnicity. You know, there’s been a lot of attention devoted to growing inequality among men and among male wage earners, but it’s also important to remember that there’s a lot more inequality among women age wage earners today than there has been in the past. A lot of the gains that women have made relative to men come at the top or middle of the income distribution, whereas low-wage women haven’t fared much better than low-wage men. So, you know, some people argue that gender is kind of declining in significance economically because of that class trend. But where the gender differences come in, I think, is in responsibility for dependent care, and those responsibilities were made pretty strong and pretty significant in economic terms. So that’s why gender is still very much in play.
JAY: Great. Thanks very much for joining us, Nancy.
FOLBRE: Yeah, my pleasure.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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