Every now and then, someone calculates what a family would have to pay for a mother's services. In one such exercise, a mother's worth was estimated at $508,700 per year in wages alone, not counting retirement, health, and other benefits. This astronomical sum was arrived at by adding up the median annual salaries of the seventeen occupations a mother is expected to perform, from child-rearing, cooking, and cleaning to managing household finances and resolving family emotional problems. A more realistic assessment would probably value a mother's work at the level of a middle manager, plus the additional occasional services of a psychologist, a financial planner, a chauffeur, and so on. This package could easily add up to $100,000 a year -- or $100,000 a year more than a mother is paid.
"No one's crazy enough to work for free but moms," says Ric Edelman, whose firm, Edelman Financial Services, made the $500,000 calculation." And no one has enough money to hire a good mom . . . . From that perspective our mothers are indeed priceless."
Unpaid female caregiving is not only the life blood of families, it is the very heart of the economy. A spate of new studies reveals that the amount of work involved in unpaid child care is far greater than economists ever imagined. Indeed, it rivals in size the largest industries of the visible economy. By some estimates, even in the most industrialized countries the total hours spent on unpaid household work -- much of it associated with child-rearing -- amount to at least half of the hours of paid work in the market. Up to 80 percent of this unpaid labor is contributed by women.
This huge gift of unreimbursed time and labor explains, in a nutshell, why adult women are so much poorer than men -- even though they work longer hours than men in almost every country in the world. One popular economics textbook devotes four pages to problems of poverty without once mentioning the fact that the majority of poor people are women and children. The author never considers that this poverty might be related to the fact that half the human race isn't paid for most of the work it does.
In economics, a "free rider" is someone who benefits from a good without contributing to its provision: in other words, someone who gets something for nothing. By that definition, both the family and the economy are classic examples of free riding. Both are dependent on female caregivers who offer their labor in return for little or no compensation.
*Endnotes were omitted.
Copyright © 2001 Ann Crittenden
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