Investing in the care economy

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Auction politics started in right earnest in Tamil Nadu soon after Assembly elections were announced. This time the issue of women’s household care work has come to the centre-stage.

In December 2020, actor-turned-politician Kamal Hasan, leader of the Makkal Needhi Maiyam, while unveiling his party’s seven-point ‘Governance and Economic Agenda’, announced his commitment to women’s empowerment by recognising their work at home “through payment for their work at home which hitherto has been unrecognised and unmonetised”.

Though one can sense the sincerity in his idea, there are serious problems with the notion of “salary” and household care work being seen as a “job”. Nonetheless, in the past few days, this issue has been picked up by both DMK and AIADMK — the former announcing ₹1,000 for ration card holding homemakers and the latter assures ₹1,500 for homemakers plus LPG cylinders. Recognising unpaid household work is the first step for women’s empowerment and should be welcome. But monetising care by giving providers a salary is essentially disempowerment as it institutionalises the patriarchal norms of women being care givers and negates the progress made so far in gender equality. However, the fact that women’s household work has come to the centre-stage is a positive development. It is up to the people to use the momentum and make politicians go beyond monetising care to ensure a more sustainable path for gender equality in Tamil Nadu.

Burden on women

As in past crises in the current pandemic crisis too, the burden of adjustment of economic crises and recovery is disproportionately borne by women, as research by feminist economists shows. The austerity policies of the 1980s as well as after 2008 crisis, increased casualisation of labour force with more women taking on temporary and precarious employment. During recessions, women take on additional jobs that are flexible and often part-time to support the family.

Also macroeconomic recovery policies focus solely on the economy itself — tax, credit, and labour or capital market policies to incentivise firms, banks, production sectors etc, and also the need for market reforms.

However, we fail to go beyond the proximate causes of growth and see how unpaid care and social reproduction at home and in the community are the ultimate adjustment variables that underpin the effectiveness of these policies and bring back growth. Economic growth ultimately depends on labour productivity and human capital accumulation, both of which are nourished, replenished and reinforced by women’s household unpaid care, in the short and long run.

The cumulative impact of ignoring social reproduction in all the past crises is what is playing out in this pandemic crisis. Ignoring it again would be a huge mistake.

Therefore, political parties must go beyond giving salaries and commit to creating, developing, and strengthening the care or social reproduction sector separately from that of the healthcare infrastructure .

To sustain the development of the public provisioning of care, governments should incorporate an ‘MGNREGA-like’ employment guarantee for women to work in the care sector, if linking care work within the Act itself is not possible. Further, along with the initial investment needed to develop this sector, the government should also invest in domestic violence prevention programmes. This would prove crucial for the economic viability of the care sector because, according to feminist economists, the economic loss due to domestic violence is about 0.9 to 1 per cent of the GDP.

The savings we make by reducing the prevalence of violence against women can fund, at least partly, the care sector. So, on the one hand, creating the public provisioned care sector with employment guarantee schemes would provide income support for families, and on the other hand, it can also provide a social care safety net in terms of the social care services to help communities cope better with crises. The cumulative impact of reduced violence will begin to fully fund the care sector from increased productivity, potential output, and economic growth.

What we need is a ‘big push’ investment in care and social reproduction, separately from that of the health care infrastructure area. Without that we will be crossing the same river many times over.

The writer is with the J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics, National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland