Caregiving: A Puzzling Problem

Beverley Smith explores the perverse way in which care is undervalued, discounted and the perverse policies which flow from this.

Author: Beverley Smith

In 1995 UN member nations agreed to tally unpaid work. The agreement was non-binding. We were fighting two battles - to get the care role noticed and to get it noticed wherever it happens. We were confronting traditional economics that devalued women and counted only paid work. No wonder this was hard.

A recent international webinar on caregiving hosted by Make Mothers Matter showed we are making big strides, while I was taking baby steps. But there are still hurdles.

Women's rights

First wave feminists got the vote, second wave feminists got women any career and pay equity. But they discouraged being ‘just a housewife’. The loudest voices against women were other women. Third wave feminists aimed at the win-win; respect for paid roles or care roles equally. But governments are stuck in the second wave.


The terms ‘work’, ‘labor force’ and ‘productivity’ only count paid work. Though we say ‘housework’ and being in ‘labor’ a person in there is dubbed inactive. ‘Staying home’ is code for laziness. A ‘working mother’ implies there are non-working mothers; a vacuum cleaner ‘not working’ is broken.

'Childcare' officially is not care of a child, but paid care. Governments brag of funding 'childcare' without clarifying this money goes only to day care centres. Traditional economics is blind to unpaid roles. Economist Marilyn Waring said: "When I see a woman holding her child, I know I am watching a woman at work." She was ground-breaking and right.

Care as privilege

When women still wanted to be home with the baby, economists assumed care was leisure, for indolent women. Canada said it would not encourage women to be wealthy banker's wives even though the Canadian Council on Social Development said most families with a parent at home live near the poverty level.

The myth that women at home were rich led to higher taxes on the single income household. Costs of childcare were only claimable if cash was paid to a 3rd party. Income loss for a parent at home may halve household income but could not be claimed a ‘cost’. The state had an odd view of who was rich.

Care as burden

When parents pointed out their role was not leisure, involved sleepless nights and intense days, traditional economics flipped the view. Now care of children was burden. The answer was for men to share the load and for women to escape the obstacle to doing useful paid work. These moves did not value caregiving.

National accounts

Having governments provide childcare was costly. Sweden's tax rate soared. Many countries enlarged group sizes but costs kept rising since staff only stayed if they got good salaries.

Child care that way was affordable to parents only if the state paid the bill. Now taxpayers were required to subsidize this one care style.

Before, government took care for granted, got it free. GDP had no column for money not spent, and unpaid labor had saved government billions.

GDP counted any job as good for the economy, even forest fires since they generated firefighter jobs. Nudging mothers to leave toddlers for paid jobs, and hire caregivers created two jobs. Nobody asked what the parent wanted though, and nobody asked the child.

Statistics Canada admitted that unpaid labor if counted would be one third of the GDP, So I was pleased on the webinar to learn of new versions of GDP but few nations are listening.

Time use surveys

Another way to notice care was time use surveys. They are good but incomplete. Is a laborer with a baby on her back doing work or childcare? Is cooking and shopping for diapers work or childcare? Mothers with paid jobs resented not being called ‘full time mothers’. Parents see most of what they do as care of the kids. 

In a subway tunnel were two posters of a smiling baby. On one was the word 'work' and on the second the word 'play'. They were both right.

In Canada time use surveys were scrapped as an invasion of privacy. This highlighted another dilemma: Is care a personal decision or societal? The daycare lobby claimed care was in the national interest - that $2 spent there would save $7 in lower unemployment, health care and criminal justice costs. But, any good care saves that money. Even care at home.

Other issues

Concerns about global warming abound. Compelling though those are, they are not this issue. When environmentalists urge people to not have babies or teenagers think the world is ending, that does not address needs of kids right now. It does not help future kids get good care.

Children's problems differ globally. Some nations have high birth rates while others have a birth rate so low the tax base is eroding. Some nations pressure women to be home while others pressure them to be leave home . Some nations confront child trafficking, child labor, child soldiers. Others face Internet bullying, teen gang affiliation, drug dealers. The West's answer is not necessarily the ideal yet. Fine tuning for good care will still require parental oversight.

Guaranteed income, pensions, savings

The plan to make welfare payments a guaranteed basic income would keep people from poverty, homelessness, starvation, and remove stigma. But since it would go to single healthy adults not just mothers at home, critics said it would encourage sloth. It was too broad a brush.

The idea of homemaker pensions was tricky. In Canada it is called the 'dropout provision', not money, but forgiveness for some caregiving years. A US talk show host suggested care roles be pensioned like military service to the nation. I liked that.

The suggestion for parents to save till they could afford kids was also flawed. It costs $180,000 to raise a child to age 18. By the time couples had enough the biological clock may have stopped.

There were other proposals. In Canada early years centers offer play areas so parents at home could drop in and get advice. Not money, just advice.

This highlighted another obstacle: can parents be trusted? One government official said money to parents would go to 'beer and popcorn'

And a common bias of traditional economics was if you can't inspect it, you can't trust it. Though people are trusted how to spend salaries, governments hesitated to trust parents with caregiving money.

The claim parents at home are not regulated was incorrect. Laws about child supervision, neglect or abuse set high stakes. Parents could lose custody of the child so they already are 'regulated'.



Laws about choice abound - about marriage. birth control, abortion, gay rights, public or private schooling. The state cannot discriminate based on race, gender, religion. Yet somehow it still plays favorites with how we raise children. We are told that need for money is 'facing reality', but a crying baby is also a reality. We are told that people 'need' daycare and have no choice. But it is us who set up the economy to make some options unaffordable.

We could fund care itself to give full choice. We're not there yet.

And sigh, most of this lobby to get unpaid work valued, will be done by unpaid work.

Note I am happy to send anyone interested a file of the timeline of international caregiving, a summary of 100 years of women's rights advocacy or a study or the state of children's rights globally. Just ask.

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Caregiving: A Puzzling Problem © Beverley Smith 2020.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

Article | 17.11.20

children and families, community, Canada, Article

Beverley Smith


Carers' rights activist

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