You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Feminist Economics Taught Us to Value Unpaid Labor

How the “care economy” entered mainstream economic thought

H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty
Feminist economics has challenged traditional ideas of "work.”

On this episode of How to Save a Country, co-host Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic, talks to political economist Nancy Folbre about how feminist ideas, once considered subversive, have begun to help shape economic policy. Director of the program on gender and care work at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Folbre discusses how feminist economics challenges traditional assumptions of classical economics—including consideration of care work as part of the broader economy. “I think we want to consider what the output of the care economy is, and the actual output is us. It’s our capabilities,” says Folbre. “The care economy is about the production and the development and also the maintenance of human capabilities. This doesn’t factor into GDP.”

Later in the episode, Michael and co-host Felicia Wong, President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, discuss how care can be a winning political message.

Presented by the Roosevelt Institute, The New Republic, and PRX. Generous funding for this podcast was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network. Views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of its funders.

Nancy Folbre [clip]: One of the interesting points about a feminist approach to care provision is that we get attached to other people. And when we get attached to them, we care about their well-being and we’re willing to do a lot of stuff on their behalf. 

Felicia Wong: That’s Nancy Folbre. She’s our guest today, and she’s going to help us answer questions like…

Michael Tomasky: What is feminist economics?

Felicia: And how is the field of feminist economics changing what we want from policy?

Michael: What is the value of unpaid labor in our economy?

Felicia: And should we be paying maybe less attention to GDP? I’m Felicia Wong, President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.

Michael: And I’m Michael Tomasky, Editor of The New Republic.

Felicia: And this is How to Save a Country, our show about the ideas and people behind a progressive vision for America.

Felicia: So, Michael, I hear we’re doing things a little bit differently this episode. You interviewed Nancy Folbre alone.

Michael: I did. It was a lot of fun. I’ve become really interested in her work recently in these last couple of years. I discovered it in depth when I was researching my most recent book. And she’s of a piece with other people we’ve had on this show, like economist Brad DeLong and Heidi Shierholz, also an economist, the former chief economist of the Department of Labor, and Joelle Gamble, now deputy to the President for economic policy. They’ve all said much the same thing: that the way we practice economics has changed, that academic economics has changed. It’s more focused on data, which helps us to be more realistic about solving actual problems of working people.

Felicia: I think part of what Nancy’s work addresses is a big piece that’s missing from some of our new economic policy. And that’s the care agenda. 

Michael: I think so. And feminist economics is a big part of that story, of how and why economics has changed. So I think that talking with Nancy is a great way for us and our listeners to see how ideas, once they start shaping policy, can change the world for the better.

Felicia: Well, you know I’m sold, right? She’s so awesome. She’s such a pioneer.

Michael: She really is. She was a woman who went into economics in the 1970s and there weren’t many of those. Nancy Folbre is director of the Program on Gender and Care Work at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the Editor of For Love and Mercy: Care Work in the U.S. and she is the author of, get this title, Felicia, Greed, Lust, and Gender: A History of Economic Ideas, among other works.

Felicia: Who wouldn’t want to read Greed, Lust, and Gender?

Michael: Three of my favorite things.

Michael: Nancy Folbre. Welcome to How to Save a Country.

Nancy Folbre: Thank you.

Michael: I want to start with you telling people some things about yourself: where you’re from, how you chose economics, what it was like to be a woman in that field in the ’70s, which was really unusual. It’s still unusual, but it was even more unusual then.

Nancy: Yeah, sure. I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and my father took care of the business affairs of a family of a nouveau riche oil millionaires. So I was always really interested in money and class issues and I also grew up in a household that had a nanny who took care of the kids, the same Mexican woman that raised my father raised me. So I always had this understanding of racial ethnic differences in San Antonio, which at the time was a very, very segregated city. Less so today, more multicultural today, etc.

Michael: And this was like the ’60s.

Nancy: Yeah, the ’60s. And I was really active in the antiwar movement as a high school student and then as a college student at the University of Texas. Anyway, I thought economics was the way to save the world. It didn’t really turn out that way. I haven’t saved it yet.

Michael: Well, I got news for you. Journalism is not always the way to save the world either.

Nancy: Yeah. Anyway, it was true that it was a little bit of a frontier in those days to be a woman in economics, but I had some really good mentors in the field and I was really fortified by my links with activists and activist groups. They gave me some pretty good training on trying to be an outsider that could also connect with insiders. That was a really important source of support as well.

Michael: So, tell people, what is feminist economics? I bet most people listening to this may not even be sure that that field exists, although it stands to reason that it should.  

Nancy: Yeah, it exists now, and I think it’s pretty hearty and healthy and remarkably successful. I’m always a little hesitant to speak for feminist economics in general, because there are a lot of differences of opinion and differences in approach, but I would say there are a few unifying themes. One theme is that women have some collective interests as women. They have other collective interests based on their class or their ethnicity or their race or their citizenship, but they also have some common interests as women and feminist economics is an effort to understand and act upon those common interests. Of course, because of the gender division of labor and because women take on more responsibility for the care of dependents and nonmarket work in the home, feminist economics has always been really interested in looking at unpaid work and measuring it and asking what it’s worth and what difference it makes and how it should be remunerated. That spills over into looking at wages and paid care jobs outside the home, like teaching, nursing, childcare, elder care, so forth and so on. A third theme that’s salient is the importance of looking beyond individual self-interest. Mainstream economics is very confident that if everybody just pursues their own self-interest, we’ll all be better off. Obviously that doesn’t work for issues of family care or care for others in general. In general, the quality of care services, whether they’re paid or unpaid, depends very heavily on having some actual concern for the well-being of the person being cared for. So another thing feminist economics has done is it’s tried to enlarge that scope of motivation.

Michael: When you mentioned self-interest, and the assumption that self-interest guides all economic activity, that is a central presumption. That’s a neoclassical, they call it, a presumption of traditional economics. There are a set of those that have driven the academic discipline and a lot of assumptions that have bled into policymaking as well, I suppose. But feminist economics really challenges some of those presumptions. Please talk more about that because I think that’s a really important point for people to understand.

Nancy: If you look at the history of economic ideas, it was very enthusiastic from the outset about the idea of men pursuing their self-interest. But the possibility that women might be self-interested and might not want to devote themselves completely to the care of men and children, that was a very subversive idea. And one of the books that I’ve written, which is called Greed, Lust & Gender, is a history of how this issue of self-interest was very much colored by gender and gender differences, femininity, masculinity. It’s still very much evident today where we think of the conservative cultural clash of ideas about gender, and the way masculinity and femininity are being both threatened by various transgressions and then fiercely defended by the conservative right. It’s a really important, very central concept.

Michael: Yeah. Talk about the idea of a “homo economicus,” what it is and what the feminist economic critique of that concept has been.

Nancy: “Homo economicus” is this little imaginary, stylized puppet who is perfectly rational, perfectly self-interested, knows everything he needs to know about the world, has consumer sovereignty, operates in competitive markets. There’s just this huge superstructure of mathematical models that are based on this very stylized agent. And, of course, he’s called rational economic man, because for many years, economists didn’t consider women to be rational actors. Rational economic man has taken a beating on a lot of different fronts, and I would say he’s very much in retreat now within the economics profession. If only in the use of different pronouns.

Michael: Right. But when did the critique begin? That was like in the ’90s. Is that right?

Nancy: Oh, no, no, no. No. no, no, it goes way back way back to the early nineteenth century.

Michael: Oh gosh.

Nancy: Early socialists who were really advocates of women’s rights, talked about the problems of inhabiting a system based entirely on competition that would tend to penalize anyone who allowed themselves to be encumbered by responsibilities for the care of others. These early thinkers are not so well known people like William Thompson and Anna Wheeler, who are both Irish rebels.

Michael: That’s fascinating. Let’s come back to current times and talk about a gentleman named Gary Becker. Gary Becker was a really well-known economist, won the Nobel Prize, taught at the University of Chicago for many years, where he made his mark on the field in a big way. Tell us a little bit more about who he was and the pivotal role that he played in defining, for some time, what family economics even was. 

Nancy: Gary Becker is a very central and, and somewhat paradoxical character in the melodrama. In some ways he was a pioneer whose innovations I think were really significant insofar as he really said, we have to pay attention to families and to what goes on in families. But the problem is he treated families as though they were basically markets, and he treated concern for others as just a preference that was innate in people. And [he] argued that altruism or concern for others existed only in families. He just drew this really sharp line between families and impersonal markets. So he treated families as a unit, as though they were an individual, they were maximizing their utility as a family. There was no conflict or interaction or bargaining or negotiation within families. Families were just molecules, in which the relationships between the atoms really didn’t matter very much.

Michael: What were the implications of that for women?

Nancy: One implication was that it eliminated by assumption any concept of conflict or bargaining in families. In Becker’s world, the only cause of dissension in families would be that there might be rotten kids or spoiled children, but as long as there was an altruistic head of household, that altruistic head of household would act on behalf of the family as a whole and would keep the rotten kid under control. So the idea that there might occasionally be a rotten daddy or a rotten mommy, that was just completely beyond consideration. But that has really changed. I will say that economists have now adopted a much more nuanced and complicated view of family decision-making.

Michael: Well, you had a lot to do with that change, didn’t you? A lot of your work has been about this bargaining within the family, right?

Nancy: Well, I think I’ve been one of the catalysts. But it was actually really taken up by more mainstream economists. It’s really effloresced into a field of its own: bargaining models and negotiation within the family. 

Michael: Tell people a little bit more about what you mean. How does that work in families and people’s lives, bargaining?

Nancy: Gee, it’s such a common sense notion that people in any relationship have to make some decisions about who’s going to do what, when. Some of that bargaining has to do with who’s going to take care of household tasks, and some of it has to do with how you’re going to spend household money, and some of it has to do with how many hours you’re going to work for pay and your partner is going to work for pay and so forth and so on. Becker had a really strong conviction that the traditional division of labor and families was efficient because men could specialize in earning money and women could specialize in raising children and taking care of the family. And it would be efficient for the same reasons that we think of international division of labor being efficient. But the catch is that when you specialize in earning money, and your career trajectory, that is a very transferable history and a very transferable skill. If you lose one job, you can go find another. That’s really not true for family-specific skills. When you specialize in doing unpaid work, if something happens, whether your partner dies or splits and abandons you, or you go through a divorce, you’re in a very, very weak position because the skills that you’ve developed and your employment history have been really affected. It’s not that you’re left without skills. It’s that the skills that you have, however valuable, are not really transferable. Bargaining is always influenced by what your next best alternative is. The threat of divorce or the threat of nonmarriage or separation is the fallback position not just in a family, but in a firm or even in a collective where people are trying to work cooperatively, there’s always some bargaining that is influenced by what the next best alternative is. That gives people with the best fallback options a lot more voice and power in the relationship.

Michael: Yeah. I want to give our listeners a sense of a timeline here. So Becker was writing his stuff in the ’70s, right? Late ’70s?

Nancy: Well, he actually started in the ’60s, and he started out doing research on human capital. Initially he was interested in the way people invest in their own human capital by deciding to go to college, but that made him realize that it was really important to look at families. After all, it’s families that actually create the initial template, the initial substance on which education is imposed.

Michael: Give people a sense of the timeline of the critique of Becker. Were there some milestone moments over the course of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, when this new idea developed into its own thing?

Nancy: I’m not sure that there were really great milestones. It was a steady drip, drip, drip. The way that the economics paradigm changes like other “scientific paradigms” is often by a process of generational replacement. For a while, Becker was a really, really strong influence in the profession, especially in his cohort of older white male economists. The profession has become more diverse over time. More women have entered and a younger generation has been less willing to buy into the stylized neoclassical assumptions. That’s apparent in a lot of ways. I mean, economics is much more diverse today than it was when I first entered the field, which I think is a really good thing.

Michael: And it’s changed tremendously in the last, what, 15 years, would you say? Twenty? With the new empirical data that’s available to economists and, as I perceive it and as people have told me, a younger generation that is just much more interested in empirical research, less interested in theoretical modeling. They’re grappling more with the conditions of the world, so to speak.

Nancy: What’s interesting is that a lot of empirical research actually threatened standard neoclassical models. It’s particularly true in behavioral economics.

Michael: Give people one quick example of that so they know what we’re talking about.

Nancy: Well, If you’re just a rational economic man, you should care just as much about losing a dollar as you do about gaining a dollar. It turns out that people are very loss averse. They’ll go to much greater lengths about losing something they’re attached to than trying to get something that is new. That’s a psychological point about attachment, as it were. There are a lot of experiments that have shown that people get attached to things in a way that a rational economic man would not. That feeds into thinking about care work and care provision and attachment to others. Because one of the interesting points about a feminist approach to care provision is that we get attached to other people. When we get attached to them, we care about their well-being and we’re willing to do a lot of stuff on their behalf.

Michael: Yeah. I want to move into talking about that and, I guess more broadly, the ways in which feminist economics has impacted real-world economic policymaking and has impacted our political economy. Now, a few moments ago in our conversation, you mentioned this concept of “putting a price on what used to be called women’s work.” That’s been a huge area of study in feminist economics, and a tremendous amount of progress has been made in the real world, I think. 

Nancy: It’s a really interesting story because there are like historical roots to this argument in the late nineteenth century, where the American Association of University Women in Massachusetts wrote a letter to the U.S. Census, complaining that homemakers, wives, and mothers were not considered productive workers. Yet that issue got submerged. It was largely ignored. But every once in a while in the ensuing years, it would pop up and then get pressed down again, repressed again, and then it would pop up again. But it really, really gained momentum in the ’80s and ’90s. One thing that happened was a lot of grassroots women’s groups began insisting that more attention was needed to unpaid work, to women’s unpaid work in the home. And, with the help of Patricia Schroeder, who happened to be the Congresswoman on the relevant Congressional committee, they got support to make some real changes. 

Michael: She was a congresswoman from Colorado in the ’70s and ’80s. She was a policy wonk and was really one of the first people in Congress to take these issues seriously and really press them seriously. Is that accurate to say?

Nancy: Yeah, and she was remarkably effective. She got the federal statistical infrastructure to collect data on child support and child support payments, which before that had really not been known. She also contributed to an ongoing effort to collect data on time use, which eventually culminated in 2003 with the American Time Use Survey.

Felicia: Michael, just interrupting here. Do you think we can actually play a quick clip of Pat Schroeder?

Michael: As a matter of fact, we can, and here’s a quick clip from 1988.

Patricia Schroeder [clip]: Washington, D.C., sees itself as the most powerful capital of the most powerful nation. Da da da da da da. But the one thing that we don’t focus enough on are families, are the things that don’t bring power. Because there are no political action committees here for children. There’s no political action committees here for family issues, and how they’re being affected under the tax code. Those types of things all get swept to one side.

Felicia: That is so right, actually, Michael. One of the things that becomes obvious when you hear her say that, even though it was way back in the ’80s. It’s like even now, I think that one of the reasons we didn’t see many of the care provisions pass in Build Back Bettermany of the childcare provisions, many of the home care provisions—is because where were the care voters? Where were the family voters on the left and the center-left? I don’t know. Got to have power.

Michael: Yeah. And you’ve got to be organized into a voting bloc. These interests have never been organized really by anyone into a voting bloc, but it also does tell you how out front Patricia Schroeder was with all this stuff. Because policy people just weren’t thinking about this in those terms.

Felicia: Right. I do think that today, SEIU organizes care workers and that’s very, very, very important. But I like the idea of a PAC for kids and for their needs in today’s economy or today’s society. I like that.

Michael: I’m with you.


Michael: So the American Time Use Survey that Patricia Schroeder helped to bring into being. By the way, another important figure here was an African American Congresswoman from Michigan, Barbara-Rose Collins, who served in the 1990s. Can you talk about what that is and why it’s important? 

Nancy: Yeah, to understand the survey, just imagine that someone calls you up and asks you if you’re willing to participate and you say yes, and they say, “Well, we want to talk about what you did yesterday, starting when you woke up. When did you wake up? What did you do then?” You respond. The interviewer says, “What did you do next?” And you respond. “What did you do after that?” Et cetera, et cetera. So there’s this really very textured picture of the day to day activities of a representative sample of Americans reporting on the previous day. And if you look at those numbers and you define work as anything that you could in principle pay somebody else to do, that is you include work that’s not paid, but could in principle be purchased as a service for somebody else. It turns out that about half of all work done in the U.S. is unpaid work.

Michael: Half of all work.

Nancy: Yeah. Which is pretty surprising in what we think of as the most capitalist economy in the world.

Michael: So Felicia, I thought it would be fun to play a little game based on the American Time Use Survey. So the latest data available on the website is from 2021. And just as an FYI, last year’s data isn’t out yet. It’ll be out in June, but,  let’s just go ahead and dig into this using the 2021 numbers. So bear that in mind. Got it. OK. On an average day, 21 percent of men did housework things like cleaning and laundry. What percentage of women do you think did housework things on an average day?

Felicia: Housework things, is that what you call them?

Michael: I like them.

Felicia: I think. it’s over 90 percent, Michael. Over 90 percent of women do housework on an average day.

Michael: Well, let’s see. The answer is 49 percent. I guess we’re a sloppy nation.

Felicia: That was maybe a bad guess.

Michael: But we learned something here, right? 

Felicia: That I over-index how much housework I do. Is that what we learned?

Michael: That it’s not a nation of June Cleaver anymore. We have messy houses.

Felicia: And we also learned obviously that more than twice as much housework is done by women as by men.

Michael: Well, that’s true. Perhaps that’s the main point. OK. Number two, on an average day in a household with parents or caretakers that have children under the age of six, women spend 1.2 hours per day providing physical care to those children—which includes bathing, feeding, all the basic things like that. How much time do you think men in those households spent doing those things? 

Felicia: I think it’s less than an hour. I would say 45 minutes. 45 minutes a day.

Michael: OK, well, the answer to that question is 31 minutes. So you were on the right track, but you were a little bit generous. 

Felicia: That’s me. I’m so generous.

Michael: Well you are. We know this. But OK, let’s just talk for a second. What does that tell us?

Felicia: It’s pretty much the same as the last answer, right? Women still do twice as much housework as men or care work as men.

Michael: More than twice as much. OK. Now let’s see what we can do for this last one. So this Time Use Survey, Felicia, differentiates between a primary activity and a secondary activity. Like if you’re at home but working, the survey asks people to rank their activities. So they’re working number one, but number two, they’re also watching the kids. So that’s the difference between primary and secondary activities.

Felicia: Got it. 

Michael: OK. In households where the youngest child is between six and 12, how many more hours do you think women spend than men providing secondary childcare?

Felicia: How many more hours? Well, based on everything else we just said, that it’s twice as… Women spend twice as much time providing childcare, including secondary childcare, than men. That’s my guess.

Michael: Well, that seems a reasonable guess. The answer is that it’s 2.4 more hours. Women spend 6.3 hours on the average day providing secondary childcare while men spend 3.9 hours. So in almost every instance, it’s a bit more than twice, two and a half times as much. I would like to note that I do my share around this house. I think…

Felicia: I can confirm that for our listeners. Michael and I are often prepping the show and he’s got to drive his daughter to school. I can confirm this.

Michael: I try to do my share. But anyway, we do this, of course, to illustrate the point that Nancy is making here, that unpaid labor is an important part of our lives and has value. I was staggered when she said to me that perhaps half of all labor in the United States is unpaid. And of course it falls much more heavily on women. 


Michael: So Nancy, you just said that half of all work done in the U.S. is unpaid work. But people have put a value on this unpaid work, right? And it’s like in the trillions or something, isn’t it? 

Nancy: Yes, but let me just say, it’s a very rough estimate. It’s better than zero, right? But usually the basis of the estimate is, what would you have to pay somebody to do this work for you? That’s called a replacement cost estimate. In most cases, that’s a lower bound estimate of the value, especially for childcare. There are a lot of technical issues like what you’re going to count, whether you’re going to count supervision of children as work, if it’s a background activity, or if you’re only going to count actively feeding, bathing, clothing a child, so forth and so on. So estimates, you can take data from the American Time Use Survey and multiply the hours reported times a replacement cost wage. And you can see that GDP, gross domestic product, which only looks at the dollar value of goods and services bought and sold, would increase by somewhere between 25 and 40 percent if you assign a value to unpaid work. So the work represents about half of all work, but the replacement cost wage is relatively low. So that’s why it ends up being a lower number.

Michael: I see. Wow. That’s amazing. GDP would be 25 to 40 percent higher.

Nancy: Yes, but GDP is a very bad measure for many other reasons.

Michael: Oh, yeah. Yeah. No. I, mean…

Nancy: I feel like there’s too much reliance in the literature on if we did better by women, we could increase GDP. That’s a terrible measure, especially given that we’re living in a society where mortality rates are going up and public health is going down.

Michael: I mean, stopping the use of GDP as a measurement entirely is another branch of economics and feminist economics, is it not?

Nancy: Yeah, but I don’t think anybody really argues for just completely extirpating GDP. We need it for historical continuity, but we should not be so obsessed with it. We should have a dashboard of indicators of which GDP is one. And we should try to deter everybody, including journalists, from coming back again and again to this very misleading term. It’s especially misleading also from an environmental perspective point of view, because at the same time that GDP is going up, our potential sustainability in terms of climate and ecology is going down.

Michael: Yeah. A ton of coal adds to the GDP and so on and so on. I could talk about GDP for an hour, but we probably shouldn’t. Let me switch to another big topic in this area which is the care economy. With respect to the value of this work, are there any ways that that has made itself felt in economic policymaking?

Nancy: Now, the U.S., like many countries, maintains this, what’s called a satellite account, which is an account that revolves around the main account that includes estimates of the imputed value of nonmarket work. For instance, we can compare living standards between countries and instead of just relying on GDP, we could look at the combined value of GDP and unpaid work. More importantly than just the national income accounts, I think it’s really heightened awareness of the economic value of unpaid work, which has traditionally been seen as a great moral contribution and a great social value, but has always been segregated from the rest of the economy.

Michael: I think of the great work that Ai-jen Poo does with respect to getting recognition for domestic workers. That has some roots in this movement as well, doesn’t it?

Nancy: Absolutely, because the same factors that lead to the undervaluation of unpaid work, to the devaluation of unpaid work, lead to  undervaluation of a lot of paid care jobs. In fact, most of my recent empirical work focuses on the penalties that workers in care industries pay in earnings relative to earnings in business services in particular.

Michael: Yeah. It’s really interesting. Ai-jen Poo in particular has had tremendous success, not at the federal level, of course, but a lot of wins at the state level.

Nancy: Yeah, she’s really a brilliant policy activist. She’s just done a terrific job at making the issues much more personal and immediate, and I think very persuasive and compelling activist, for sure. 

Michael: Yeah, she’s great. I want to move now to talking about the care economy so-called, which is a big piece of all this. It’s a big piece of this effort to change the economic paradigm, of which we’re all in our different ways a part of. Tell people what the care economy is and why it is a particular concern to feminist economics. 

Nancy: The care economy is a great concept. It really speaks to the importance of care provision for society as a whole but especially for women who are often playing a bigger role in it than men are. It includes a lot of unpaid work, but it also includes workers in industries like education, health, and social services. And, as we were saying, if you assign a value to unpaid work, the care economy then begins to loom very large, because you’re combining it with some sectors of the paid economy. But I don’t think we want to conceptualize it just in terms of inputs, like how much work goes into it or what value we want to assign to that work. I think we want to consider what the output of the care economy is and the actual output is us. It’s our capabilities. The care economy is about the production and the development and also the maintenance of human capabilities. This doesn’t factor into GDP. But GDP is really, supposedly, an input into us and how well we are creating our own capabilities. The concept really pushes us toward thinking about social value and the social climate, not just the physical climate crisis, but what does it mean when we are living in a world where problems of drug addiction and suicide and crime are so prevalent and so costly. And I think it’s very much related to a very inefficient system of care provision.

Michael: What are the policy efforts to change provision of care that are interesting to you?

Nancy: The Democratic Party has really moved very much toward emphasizing a care policy agenda. The Build Back Better plan that almost passed Congress is a really good example of that. And I don’t think it’s dead. It created a precedent that’s going to continue to gain momentum. Most recently, in April, the Biden-Harris administration published some executive orders that are very much designed to use the levers of federal policy to improve the situation by changing Medicaid rules to provide more support for home- and community-based care, increasing reimbursement rates for Head Start teachers. They’re all little small things but that’s the way social policy is made. Every avenue that’s available, you try to move forward on.

Michael: And this is something people may have heard or read about, but what about in the CHIPS Act, the requirements for firms that win government contracts to provide childcare? 

Nancy: Yes, that’s another example. It’s unlikely to have a very big macroeconomic effect because there aren’t that many firms that fall into that category, but it sets a huge precedent. Also, the emphasis on improving care provision for federal workers, that’s also part of the executive actions of April, and that, too, is going to set a precedent for the private sector.

Felicia: So Michael, I just want to break in here to talk a little bit more about some of the reasons that these care provisions, the ones from Build Back Better, didn’t make it into the final law. I know we’ve touched on that already in this show, but I don’t know, it really irks me. So let’s keep talking about it.

Michael: OK. Let’s start by you reminding us all of what those were again.

Felicia: There were provisions that would have saved families thousands of dollars every year in the money that they pay out for childcare or for preschool costs. And there were some policy design to make sure that childcare in particular was going to be about early learning and was really going to focus on teachers who were working with young kids. There was a proposal to increase more federal money that would go into a free universal pre-K program. Moms, dads, families love universal pre-K. You see it in cities like New York already. 

Michael: Yeah, that was a good one.

Felicia: Exactly. There were also plans that were going to increase the wages of workers who provide home care to people who are sick or elderly. All in, it was a package that started to get to what a lot of people call universal care.

Michael: What happened?

Felicia: As we all know, because we do have the Inflation Reduction Act and lots of federal money going to green energy companies, climate made it into law, and I’m super excited about that. But the care economy piece didn’t. I really think a lot of it has to do with the fact that climate has cultivated climate voters.

Michael: What do you mean “cultivated”?

Felicia: I think climate donors really made sure to put money behind politicians who are going to vote for green energy provisions. 

Michael: Right.

Felicia: I don’t think that we have seen the same thing yet from the care side. We haven’t seen the same electoral infrastructure for the care economy. I also think, and I’m sure Nancy would agree with this, some of it is just plain old gendered. Senator Manchin did have a lot to do with what got into that final bill and what didn’t. And I don’t think that these issues of care were really top of mind for him and for reasons that may have to do with just gender politics.

Michael: I would imagine that women who pay close attention to these things and the sausage making that is legislation, and who have long memories, could reel off to us a pretty long list of things that were “for women,” that got tossed in the final negotiations as bargaining chips.

Felicia: Oh yes. Richard Nixon vetoed a childcare law way back in the 1970s. So yes, it goes back to that Pat Schroeder clip that we played earlier. We just don’t have enough organizations fighting for families.

Michael: All these things come, these executive orders, these attempts at legislation, which someday we hope will pass, all these things started in the academy and in the really interesting changes that have gone on in the economics profession in the last generation or so, right? 

Nancy: Actually, Michael, I wouldn’t give academia that much credit. But I think it was very much an interaction and dialectic as it were between political activists and academic theorists. It’s easier to trace the history of an academic idea because that’s what we do: We write it all down. But I think a lot of those initial ideas were actually based on commonsense perceptions that abstract models were just not really relevant to everyday life. It’s really important that that interaction continues.

Michael: Yeah. And then along comes Occupy and the Fight for $15 and they play their role as well. So where do you think we are right now in this broad effort to change the economic paradigm? Most people I know give Biden a lot of points for what he’s done in moving us past a lot of these neoliberal presumptions. He’s had some wins, but not everything has worked out as you mentioned. What’s your sense of where things stand and how much more work there is to do?

Nancy: Well, I’m not a political strategist. I think it’s pretty clear there’s a huge amount of work that remains to be done, but the way people think about the economy is changing. In fact, one of the reasons we see such a strong conservative pushback, that’s a pushback about gender and race and citizenship, goes back to what I was saying about loss aversion. People get much more heated about losing something than the potential of gaining an equivalent amount. The very defensiveness of the American right, especially on issues of gender and race, is a reflection of real and threatened losses of relative status.

Felicia: We should really talk about the ideology, if that’s what you call it, but the ideas, the ideology that makes the right so I can’t tell if it’s defensive or aggressive, but something like that. They react very strongly to these ideas of the care economy.

Michael: It’s not just people on the right who are dead set against all this stuff. It’s also people on the right who express interest in doing something for working people and whom some on our side think of as potential allies. 

Felicia: I think that’s totally right. A great example is Oren Cass. We both know Oren. He is a really interesting thinker and he’s the author of The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America. And he’s a self-described conservative. But what he says on care is pretty remarkable because he’s describing the care economy policy ideas that we’ve been talking about on this show. This is what he says about them: “They are directly counterproductive because the existence of obligations within a family and community, that’s what gives those institutions their character and import. They give life its meaning. So if care can be bought and sold and provided by the government so everyone always has as much as they need no matter what they do, then the actual act of caring is devalued. It’s the equivalent of keeping a quaint little home vegetable garden once everyone knows you’ll be buying all the food you really need at the grocery store.” 

Michael: This is a habit of mind on the right that I find really interesting. They take things to their, I suppose I would say, illogical extremes, whenever the specter of government involvement in these things is raised. His last sentence, to me, betrays his whole point. We can buy all the food we need at the grocery store. And yet millions and millions of people keep little home vegetable gardens. Why do they do that? Well, because it brings some satisfaction and it brings some sense of well-being and happiness. I don’t think just because there are government supported elder care facilities that middle aged people are going to stop caring for their parents.

Felicia: The other thing I really don’t buy about what Oren is saying here is that we already do have a care economy, but it’s really only one that works for top earners. If you can afford a nanny, then the shortage of affordable childcare centers doesn’t matter to you. But if you can’t afford a nanny or some other private care facility then it really matters to you that there isn’t some government provision. And it matters much more for families that are single head of household. I think he’s romanticizing a vision of family that, as we saw from the Time Survey, would have women providing more unpaid labor and a lot of people suffering as a result.

Michael: We can study this if we want. There are other societies where they have a much more extensive networks of paid family leave…

Felicia: And childcare centers, public childcare.

Michael: And childcare centers and things of that sort. Do people love their children less in France or Denmark than they do in the U.S.? I doubt that.

Michael: The other big thing that’s going on in this country, of course, is that our democracy is in great peril. What connection do you see between economics and democracy?

Nancy: Wow, that is such a tough question. Democracy is so essential to economic success. Democracy is a way of organizing cooperation. It’s a way of persuading people to work together rather than imposing a top-down authority. It’s so obvious that, especially in a modern economy where technological innovation and responses to public problems like climate change and declining public health, these are problems that markets can’t solve, that the pursuit of self-interest cannot solve. So democratic decision-making is absolutely crucial because it’s the best way we know of to organize successful cooperation.

Michael: So hopeful changes on the economic front. A lot to worry about on the democracy front. Where would you put yourself overall on the pessimism-optimism meter?

Nancy: I do not believe in pessimism or optimism as relevant categories. I think you have to do what you think is important regardless of what you think its chances of success are. Partly because it’s impossible, often, to know what’s where things are going to go. You just have to keep after them. In fact, if you start thinking too hard about what the odds are, you might lose heart about the game.

Michael: Most of the big doers in history probably didn’t think very much about the odds. Our traditional last question, Nancy Folbre, this show’s called How to Save a Country. If you had your magic wand and could change one thing to help save this country, move it in the right direction, what would it be?

Nancy: Wow. That is the hardest question of all time. Right now, what that question invites for me is not so much a policy change or a specific goal so much as we really need to figure out how to talk to each other better and stop resorting to really divisive and polarized and mean-spirited and often violent interactions. All of us have to do everything to the extent possible to improve confidence in democracy and in democratic citizenship and in interaction and debate and conflict resolution. So it’s my magic wand.

Michael: There you go. Nancy Folbre, thank you for joining us.

Nancy: Yeah, thank you so much, Michael.

Felicia: So Michael, that was just a totally great interview. 

Michael: Well, that’s because of her, not me.

Felicia: No, no, it was really great. It was a great conversation, and it really makes me think that care more generally, obviously it’s important as a policy matter, but I’m thinking about the politics of care and I think that care can be a winning message, political message, for progressives because it is something that’s very tangible and it speaks to our emotions.

Michael: It speaks to our emotions and it just speaks directly to so many people’s day-to-day lives. It’s abundantly clear that Americans are desperate for better care infrastructure. Poll after poll after poll, while Build Back Better was on the table showed that. Here are the results of one recent poll, 79 percent of voters, which included 89 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Independents, and 70 percent of Republicans—

Felicia: That’s a big number. 70 percent of Republicans.

Michael: Yeah, that’s a big number, and they support the Child Care of Every Community Act.

Felicia: Right, and that was the bill that would cap childcare costs at either $10 a day or 7 percent of a family’s income. Isn’t that right?

Michael: Yes, that’s it exactly. It was introduced by Elizabeth Warren earlier this year, and it would have created a federal-local partnership to invest in a network of childcare options for kids across the country.

Felicia: Yeah, I think that’s a great start. I’m all for even more public options than that, like truly public childcare. But at any rate, these are some of the legislative ideas that are on the table. Michael, I got to ask you, given this Congress, do you think this is going to pass?

Michael: No, this and other things will only pass, let’s face it, if the Democrats have majorities in both Houses, and they do something about the filibuster. Then they can pass a whole raft of these things. 

Felicia: I really hope that that is the world we end up living in, but for now, what I think is great is that there’s a real sea change even from five years ago, right, Michael? Right now we are imagining and talking about the care economy in ways that are very new. It’s become a much more mainstream conversation. I think that’s our good news for today, don’t you?

Michael: That’s really good news. And we have people like Nancy Folbre and a whole lot of other people like her to thank.

Felicia: We do. So, Michael, next week we’re going to do an episode swap. We’re going to share some work from our friends at The Politics of Everything. It’s going to be awesome.

Michael: That’s great. Yes. The Politics of Everything is the other—well, we’re really “the other”—they’re the original New Republic podcast. 

Felicia: The OG. 

Michael: Yeah. Which features Literary Editor Laura Marsh and contributing editor Alex Pareene. They’ve been at it a lot longer than we have, and we welcome the swap!

Felicia: How to Save a Country is a production of PRX in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.

Michael: Our script editor is Christina Stella. Our producer is Marcelo Jauregui-Volpe. Our lead producer is Alli Rodgers. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzales, and our mix engineer is Pedro Rafael Rosado.

Felicia: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound with other music provided by APM. How to Save a Country is made possible with support from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that is reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal well-being at

Michael: Support also comes from the Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society Initiative, working to foster the development of a new common sense about how the economy works and the aims it should serve.