The value of a home cooked meal: Economic theory and productive and non-productive work

Tanya Corrie of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand facilitated the recent Good Conversation – Economic Frameworks and Women’s Human Rights. The panel discussion concerned gender equity and the limits of economics in examining public policy and welfare. This is an edited version of Tanya’s introduction to the event.

Economic theory can help tell us a lot about markets and about the organisation of labour. It is a social science, and ultimately it speaks to structures, power and human behaviour. However, economics is often misused and presented as a source of truth on which to base policy. Economic theory tells us that if we pull this particular lever, that particular effect will follow – that, for example, if interest rates are reduced, the corresponding access to low credit will increase consumption and investment. Theory would tell us that this increase in consumption will then result in more jobs making and selling the products people want to buy. And consequently, business will reinvest additional profits, more jobs will be created, everyone will have enough money for the things they need and the world will be in equilibrium.

Except … we can’t assume people to always be rational actors, behaving in lineal conformity with the predictions and forecasts of the theory. There is not such a thing as perfect competition. Barriers exist to entering the market place. Not all people have the capacity to participate freely in our capitalist utopia.

Economics and political sciences are intrinsically linked and the neo-liberalist framework tends to govern all policy decisions – economic or otherwise. This framework’s ‘hyper-individualised’ approach largely ignores the structural barriers people experience in attempting to access the market economy. Neo-liberalism leaves little room for other economic ideologies that may incorporate understandings of human behaviour and its influences on economic systems.

We seem to proceed on the assumption that if we work to make and keep the economy happy, it will bear us fruit. But will it? If so, do we all get to enjoy the fruit? Will some of it be rotten?

The neo-liberal view of economic participation has particular impacts on women. Saskia Sassen discusses some of the challenges for women in her work. With rapid globalisation and dramatic changes to workforce participation, she argues, many societies are responding on the backs of women: women are trafficked for sex work, domestic work and other forced labour. On conservative estimates, a staggering 20.9 million people are victims of forced labour across the globe. Of these, 11.4 million are women. We have not abolished slavery. We have, rather, outsourced it. Something is wrong with what we value – our prioritisation of money over human dignity; economic growth over equity.

In a so-called thriving economy, we disproportionally foist our poverty upon women. We value women according only to their degree of participation in what is considered the ‘formal’ economy. When women do engage in formal labour, they are paid less than their male counterparts for the same work. And the undervaluing of women’s work is further evidenced by the fact remuneration is overwhelmingly lower in industries dominated by women. The inconsistencies are neatly articulated by Marilyn Waring:

Cooking…is "active labour" when cooked food is sold and "economically inactive labour" when it is not. Housework is "productive" when performed by a paid domestic servant and "non-productive" when no payment is involved. Those who care for children in an orphanage are occupied; mothers who care for their children at home are "unoccupied."

This apparent paradox raises important questions:

  • In what ways are economic frameworks – particularly dominant ones - helpful, unhelpful or misused?
  • How do we address the tension between economic frameworks and women’s rights?
  • If we continue to operate within the dominant economic framework, what do we do about those who are pushed to the margins of the market? What do we do about equity?

Until we meaningfully answer these questions, and start to critically analyse the assumptions underlying the ways we value work and care, women will remain disadvantaged.