‘It’s good for the economy.’ It’s the routine mantra accompanying all policy reveals — including, most recently, the Federal Government’s promise to revamp its paid parental leave scheme by obliging both parents to share it more equally. In this case, the mantra fits and the economy will likely benefit. The policy will offer mum greater opportunities to ‘lean in’ at work if she wishes to — to direct some energy towards advancing her career, even with a young family, by leaning on dad to regard himself as a caregiver as much as a breadwinner. The new policy will also be good for the economy because it will encourage a more expansive view of what the economic good really is.
Usually, when I hear the ‘good for the economy’ line, I also hear Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride in my head: ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’ Or , in this case, that ‘economy’ means only what we often think it means. When we talk about ‘the economy’, we assume there’s only one worth knowing about: the market economy. That’s why we speak about the economy and GDP in the same breath: we treat the sum of goods and services produced and sold — and the profits we hope they’ll add to the bottom line — as our measure of the health of the nation. Which would be fine if the market economy was the only one that existed.
Except that it isn’t. The care economy encompasses all the work required, both paid and unpaid, to take care of the needs of others. It includes volunteer or paid care in childcare centres, schools, healthcare facilities, and disability and aged care facilities. It also includes the unpaid care of children, the elderly, and people with disabilities or chronic illnesses in the home. It is an economy that is powered mostly by women, often in poorly paid or unpaid roles. The value of the unpaid component of the care economy alone as equivalent to more than half of Australia’s GDP, and yet it is not included in the calculation of the GDP.
As care feminists have long insisted, the care economy underwrites the market economy. In other words, the work of caring for people and the places they live both precedes and props up the work that counts towards GDP. The trouble is, we don’t recognise the huge social and economic value of this work, and so women, who do most of the caring, are left to juggle paid work outside the home as well as unpaid work within it.
It’s why Sam Mostyn, President of Chief Executive Women, called on the government to invest in the care economy as much as it would any other piece of critical infrastructure. ‘We need to start valuing, maintaining and investing in it with the same energy and focus as we would any arterial road,’ she told the National Press Club last year. The government’s planned changes to paid parental leave at least signal its intention to do just that. Mostyn and others like her see the care economy and the market economy operating in tandem, even if one tends to benefit at the expense of the other.
In expanding our working definition of ‘the economy’, we also need to consider the environment. Sydney Morning Herald Economics Editor Ross Gittins believes the market economy is entirely dependent, he writes, on the ‘ecosystem services’ of the natural world: fresh air, clean water, nutritious food, and even wellbeing, since being in thriving green spaces tends to be rejuvenating. So, investing in the health of the natural environment yields economic goods that pay dividends to all of us, even if they can’t be quantified.
‘Claiming something is ‘good for the economy’ means having all these other economies in view. It’s a reminder to not take anything for granted, not least the resources of caregiving or the natural world.’
If Mostyn and Gittins can see more than one economy at a time, so can we.
In Coming Home: Discipleship, Ecology and Everyday Economics, political economist Jonathan Cornford observes that oikos, the Greek word for home, is also where we get the word ‘economy’ — or oikonomia, meaning household management. It’s also the root of the word ‘ecology’, which we might think of as the ‘household’ of nature.
You might dimly recall home economics as a traditionally ‘girly’ subject at secondary school encompassing food studies and home management. In Coming Home, Cornford argues that home economics is a way of life, making it everyone’s business.
For Cornford, the related terms suggest a set of interdependent ‘households’ or economies to which we belong. All are nestled like Russian dolls within each other: the market economy relies on both the (unpaid) care economy of the home (that’s Mostyn’s point) as well as the ‘household’ of nature (and there’s Gittins’ point). We’re part of this picture too, because our individual homes are a microcosm of the larger households we inhabit.
This perspective means that claiming something is ‘good for the economy’ means having all these other economies in view. It’s a reminder to not take anything for granted, not least the resources of caregiving or the natural world.
In Cornford’s exploration of home economics, he includes another ‘house’: the household of God. For Cornford, a focus on the spiritual economy should ground our response to the great ecological challenges and economic injustices of our time. Our market economy might overlook the contributions of the care economy and the environment, he argues, but God’s economy notes the fall of a sparrow. This economy is not one of infinite abundance, useful for human exploitation, but one of order and balance where, according to Matthew’s gospel, ‘even the very hairs of your head are all numbered’. Within this ‘house’, everything is accounted for.
A technocratic age will find it hard to consider multiple economies at once. A secular age will resist the idea of a spiritual economy. But we’re in dire need of holistic approaches that help us live more sustainably on the planet and more equitably with each other. Especially if you think it’s up to all of us — not just the women — to get good at keeping house.
Dr Justine Toh is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and a Research Associate at Anglican Deaconess Ministries, where she is writing a book about care.
This article first appeared at Eureka Street.