1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009)

Political and Social Economy of Care

  • Project from: 2006 to 2009

The dynamics of care are receiving increasing attention from activists, researchers, and policy actors. While this may be in part a reflection of women’s greater political visibility and agency, and the fact that once in office they have sometimes championed issues such as family and care policy, there are also economic and social pressures underpinning academic and policy interest in this area.

Women's entry into the paid work force—a near-global trend—has squeezed the time hitherto allocated to the care of family and friends on an unpaid basis. While the decline in fertility across many regions means that there are fewer children to be cared for, demographic aging in some countries and major health crises in others, have intensified the need for caring services. In many developing countries where public health services have been severely weakened during the decades of reform, much of the care burden has inevitably fallen back on women and girls. Paid care services have become a growing sector of the economy in many contexts, especially in the more developed economies, as a result of women’s increasing participation in the paid labour force. These services in turn employ many women. In this context, the quality of care, and the pay and working conditions of carers, have become contested policy issues. Paid care services have been susceptible to competitive pressures that generate low pay/low quality outcomes—adversely affecting both care workers and the recipients of care.

Recent years have seen a growing literature, from diverse disciplinary perspectives converging around the issue of care. These intellectual currents include efforts within feminist economics to construct analytical frameworks for understanding the “other economy” where the direct production and maintenance of human beings takes place, as well as methodologies for measuring and valuing it. From within social policy research there have been concerted efforts to engender welfare regimes analysis by bringing in issues of care. Dovetailing, and enriching, these diverse conceptual and empirical engagements, has been a philosophical conversation about the “ethics of care”, contesting the narrowness of an ethic of paid work that drives policy agendas and reforms across welfare states.

The key features of the UNRISD project
This project is undertaking comparative research on the multiple institutions of care (households and families; states; markets; and the not-for-profit sector), their gender composition and dynamics, and their implications for poverty and social rights of citizenship. It seeks to undertake empirical research on the care sector in different developing regions and to connect the analysis to some of the conceptual debates on care that has taken the developed capitalist economies as its point of reference. The research spans across eight countries drawn from four different regions: Argentina and Nicaragua; South Africa and Tanzania; South Korea and India; Switzerland and Japan. From each region one country with a more developed welfare infrastructure and another with a less developed welfare architecture have been identified; all countries have at least one recent time use survey (TUS) available.

The institutions involved in the provision of care may be conceptualised in a stylised fashion as a “care diamond”, to include the family/household, markets, the public sector, and the not-for-profit sector (although typologies are always problematic). The research seeks to understand the gender inequalities and power dynamics that are embedded within these different institutions, and to capture the implications of different care arrangements for those who provide care, on a paid or unpaid basis, in terms of poverty and access to social rights (differentiated by class, gender, race or caste). While the institutions captured by the “diamond” need to be systematically explored across all country studies, the type of care being studied (care of children, the elderly, the chronically ill) will vary across countries.

The project combines a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods of examining how care is provided in different countries. Some of these methods will be country-specific, but there will also be attempts to utilise some methods and approaches across all countries so as to facilitate comparison. While the availability of time use data is critical for the research (in most countries there is only one survey to draw on), the intention is not to limit the research questions to the data that are easily available through the TUS. Other data sources will also be used to trace changes in the economic/labour force and social structure leading up to the period for which a TUS is available, as well as add detail to the snapshot picture provided by the TUS. Each country is taking an analytically strong time frame that allows for comparisons within that country and draws on diverse sources of information (both quantitative and qualitative) to make sense of social processes and trajectories.

Cross-cutting research questions and methodologies

1. Historical context and processes of social change (desk-top research)
Political and economic trajectories and their impacts on labour market institutions, welfare and care institutions, and poverty and inequality will be delineated. Socio-demographic changes, including changes in household structure and size across social groups; changes in fertility, age structure, and marriage practices will also be documented. Economic and labour force changes from a gender perspective will be elaborated: size, age, and gender composition of the paid work force as well as different contractual forms.

2. Unpaid care provision (within households) and its intersections with the paid economy (analysis of primary data from TUS)
The household constitutes a key institution where unpaid care is provided. The research seeks to explore how the provision of unpaid care is combined with paid work for different household members. In some countries it may be difficult to combine TUS data with labour market/household income data. Moreover, in most countries there is only one TUS available, making it impossible to provide an analysis of change in these aspects over time. The aim is to obtain a disaggregated analysis of these dimensions across income or expenditure categories; household types, and other social stratifications depending on context (e.g. race, caste).

3. A comprehensive overview of institutional frameworks and policies related to care services in non-household institutions will be undertaken (based on primary evidence and selected interviews with key informants). This would include the analysis of non-household institutions involved in the provision of care for specific groups of people needing care (young children, elderly, chronically ill): the form, role and significance of public sector institutions; the extent and character of different types of market provision; as well as the character and significance of care provided by the not-for-profit sector (e.g. community provision, charities, NGOs, religious organizations, and so on).

4. An in-depth view of selected forms of non-household care provision (using qualitative research techniques)
While labour force surveys provide macro-quantitative indicators on how various care occupations have grown over the years, there is also a need for a more textured analysis of some of these forms of care provision. The different care providers include: domestic workers, nurses and other health sector workers, home-based care workers; and non-household family carers (i.e. non-resident grandmothers, daughters, daughters-in-laws providing care). For each of these significant categories of worker the research will explore both how they give care and how they receive care/organize care of self.

5. Policies and programmes
Some policies and programmes have a direct and explicit intention to provide care services that can substitute and/or complement unpaid care provided by household members. This includes, for example, provision of care services for young children (e.g. crèches and pre-schools), for the elderly, for the chronically ill, and people with disabilities.

Other policies aim explicitly to assist unpaid carers (only mothers, or mothers and fathers) to care for the young by providing paid or unpaid leave from employment, with varying levels of generosity; it could be maternalist (only mothers get the “right to care” but not fathers) or transformative (both parents have the right to care, and fathers in particular are encouraged to do so).

Pensions and insurance systems may also include some care-related features: for example in several European countries and in Japan “bonuses” or “credits” are provided for individuals who provide unpaid care for children or adults needing care.

In developing countries many of the above-mentioned policies are poorly developed, and poorly implemented. But there are other social programmes that are impacting on the care economy, such as cash transfers (child benefits, pensions) and work programmes (employment guarantee and public works programmes). Some of these programmes may not be about care, i.e. pensions are not about care (they are about financing of old age when the person cannot earn). But they may allow those who receive a pension to purchase care or to receive care from their children because they can now use the pension to assist the carer with some of her/his household needs (e.g. paying for school fees of grandchildren). Other kinds of social programmes may have a larger and indirect impact on care: for example health care assumes some of the responsibility for the care of the elderly and chronically ill, while education services (schools) also perform a care task with respect to children who are in school. Similarly, changes in education programmes such as provision of school meals or continuous day, could free up time that has been hitherto allocated to unpaid care work.

6. Valuing the unpaid and paid care sectors: A cross-country comparison
The project is also developing a small number of simple quantitative “macro” measures that would compare the size of the paid and unpaid economies – and especially the care element of these economies – in the different countries, using comparable data sets. In so doing, these measures will give broad indications of the size of different parts of the “care diamond”. Work in this area takes into account the nature and limitations of the different data sources in the different countries. The aim is to derive estimates that are not too complicated so that readers of the research can relatively easily understand what has been done and what the findings mean.

The types of comparisons that will be explored include the following:
  • The value of total paid work in the economy versus value of total unpaid work, including the sex breakdown for the total paid and unpaid, with broad sub-categories within both paid and unpaid.
  • The value of unpaid care work compared with different types of tax revenue. This comparison would support the argument that caring for others constitutes a type of tax. Ordinary monetary taxes constitute a contribution that people are forced to make to the welfare of society in general rather than for their own benefit, and often includes a larger contribution by men than women (because of men’s greater labour force participation and higher earnings). In contrast, unpaid care work constitutes a contribution to general welfare, made primarily by women.
  • The value of unpaid care work compared with different types of government expenditure on salaries. The chosen government expenditures would be those which represent public care work, such as in schools and hospitals.
  • A measure of care produced by care workers falling within the SNA (System of National Accounts) production boundary. This measure would be based on the occupations recorded for workers in a survey such as a labour force survey. Possible measures include the number of workers (male and female) involved, the number of hours worked, and the income earned
  • The value of unpaid care work expressed as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP).

Sources of funding:

Funding for the project has been secured from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC, Canada), Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) and UNDP (Japan/WID Fund).

Papers prepared:

Commissioned thematic papers
  • Fernando Filgueira, Magdalena Gutierrez and Jorge Papadópulos, The coming of age of a mature welfare regime and the challenge of care: labor market transformations, second demographic transition and the future of social protection in Uruguay
  • Nancy Folbre and Jayoung Joon, Economic Development and Time Devoted to Direct Unpaid Care Activities: An Analysis of the Harmonized European Time Use Survey (HETUS)
  • Shireen Hassim, The Politics of Gender: How to create political constituencies of women in highly unequal societies
  • Fiona Williams, Claiming and Framing in the Making of Care Policies
  • Leila Patel, The Gendered Character of Social Care in the Non-Profit Sector in South Africa
  • Kate Bedford, Harmonizing Global Care Policy? Care and the Commission on the Status on Women
  • Anna Wiliams, Federating HIV/AIDS Home-Based Caregivers in Kenya and Uganda

Country-level research teams:
  • Argentina: Valeria Esquivel (Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento, Instituto de Ciencias, Buenos Aires); Eleonor Faur (Universidad Nacional de General San Martín and Instituto de Desarrollo Económico y Social, Buenos Aires).
  • Nicaragua: Isolda Espinosa (Independent consultant, Managua); Juliana Martinez-Franzoni (University of Costa Rica), Carmen Largaespada Fredersdorff (Independent Consultant); Karime Ulloa (Independent Consultant).
  • South Africa: Debbie Budlender (Community Agency for Social Enquiry, Cape Town); Frances Lund (Associate Professor, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban).
  • Tanzania: Debbie Budlender (Community Agency for Social Enquiry, Cape Town); Ruth Meena (Raida High School and Learning Centre)
  • India: Rajni Palriwala (Delhi School of Economics, New Delhi); Neetha Pillai (Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi).
  • South Korea: Mi-young An (Handong Global University, School of Counseling, Psychology and Social Welfare, Seoul); Ito Peng (Department of Sociology, University of Toronto).
  • Japan: Aya Abe, Emiko Ochiai, Masato Shikata, Yuko Tamiya, Takafumi Uzuhashi.
  • Switzerland: Nadia Baghdadi (University of Bern, Switzerland); Mascha Madoerin (Independent consultant, Basel).

Advisory group:

A small advisory group has been set up to provide substantive inputs on the research design and research reports. The members of the team are:

Marzia Fontana, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, UK
Haris Gazdar, Collective for Social Science Research, Karachi, Pakistan
James Heintz, PERI, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA
Evelyne Huber, Department of Political Science, University of North Carolina, USA
Elizabeth Jelin, IDES, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Thokozile Ruzvidzo, African Centre for Gender and Social Development, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

For more information, please use the links to the right of the page.