Count Care In: From GDP To A Social Wealth Economic Index

Co-Authored by: Valerie Young, JD, Outreach director for CPS's Caring Economy Campaign. Valerie's work appears extensively in social media, @WomanInDC on Twitter, Your (Wo)Man in Washington on Facebook, and blogging for Mom-mentum.org. She also has written for The Shriver Report, Brain/Child Magazine, and is frequently featured on BlogHer.com as well as the CPS and CEC blogs.

The recently released Care Index from New America is a valuable tool for parents and policy makers who want to know the status of child care in the United States. At a glance, the user can see how each state compares. Costs in centers and homes, including nanny care, are factored in. So is the cost of childcare as a percentage of median household income and minimum wage income for each state. Quality is determined by the proportion of accredited providers and consumer ratings from Care.com. Though the Care Index doesn't show what percentage of the under 5 population is receiving quality pre-school education, or the earnings of child care providers, or the uptick in the quality of future workers who receive that education, the scope of the study is impressive and comprehensive. It ranks childcare by cost, quality and availability in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia -- and shows that our nation has a long way to go: no state earned strong scores in all 3 of these categories.

Policy makers need studies like the Care Index. Beyond this, they urgently need a broader index that shows the enormous human and economic benefits of valuing care in both homes and the market.

At the Center for Partnership Studies (CPS) we've been working on an Index to meet this vital need.

Our current national index is GDP. But when GDP rises, we do not know whether this results from increased wealth for a few high earners while living standards fall for many - as has been happening in recent decades. In other words, the net cost to human well-being is invisible. Not only that, GDP fails to show what investments result in a high general quality of life or long-term national economic competitiveness.

2016-11-01-1478028016-7401766-GDPvsCare.png

To remedy this, as a first step toward a new national index that shows the social and economic benefits of caring for people, starting in early childhood - as well as the costs of not supporting this essential work - the Center for Partnership Studies developed a set of Social Wealth Economic Indicators (SWEIs).

SWEIs empirically show that care increases human capital. Care from families and educators creates skilled and adaptable workers in the next generation. More immediately, investing in care not only strengthens the economy but also cuts through cycles of poverty.

Reconciling family care obligations with paid leave programs enables the work force to preserve household income while satisfying the irreducible human needs of children and aging parents or partners. Engaging paid caregivers for the elderly and infirm allows women, the majority of family caregivers, to stay in the labor force. Raising the wages of the direct care workforce, and making sure they can see to their own health with earned sick days, bolsters the middle class, reduces the need for public assistance, and propels the economy.

Yet care is all but invisible in GDP. This invisibility of care perpetuates poverty, promotes gender disparity and income inequality, degrades democratic systems, increases rates of incarceration, and strains governmental budgets by swelling the demand for public assistance.

SWEIs show that there is a direct link between Care Investment Indicators and the resulting Human Capacity Indicators, the two broad categories used in our methodology. They show that those countries which devote a larger percentage of public funds to women's empowerment, family support, early education, and racial equity are the very same nations with expanding economies, robust democracies, and smaller racial and gender gaps. They also have much lower teen pregnancy rates, fewer incarceration costs, reduced deviancy and reliance on public assistance. In short, greater public and private investment in pro-care policies yields a huge return on investment in economic equity and competitiveness, social cohesion, and quality of life for all.

That's why CPS continues to pursue our goal of turning our Social Wealth Economic Indicators into one number like GDP: an index that represents the link between human well-being, national economic competitiveness, and informed policy-making. We know that higher GDP does not necessarily improve standards of living across the board. To make that happen, we need different tools that make care visible. These tools will relate inputs, in the form of care investment, to outputs demonstrating the consequent growth in human capital and well-being. Creating a care infrastructure, where meeting human needs is not in opposition to a prosperous economy, but the very foundation upon which it rests, is the way to move forward and meet the serious challenges we face.

In the words of New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter, care "is the work that makes all other work possible." Snapshots of prevailing conditions are just not enough. We need the means to map out and measure the dynamic relationship between care, well-being, and economic prosperity. A Social Wealth Economic Index that takes into account the way care adds value to people and economies and can measure its efficacy over time, is the way to go now.

Valerie Young, JD, is Outreach Director for CPS's Caring Economy Campaign and blogs at Your (Wo)Man in Washington