A collage in yellow and blue tones showing people doing various household tasks, including cooking and cleaning.
One Economy, Many Lives

By Lillien Waller

Even if you're not a trained economist, you probably have a sense of how regional, national, and global policies and trends can impact your local economy and personal finances. Shifts in the federal interest rate, for instance, might change how you think about buying a car or house. Or, say, a global pandemic disrupts supply chains and drives up the cost of your groceries. But when it comes to how each of us lives within, and perceives, the broader economy, we tend to overlook what we don't fully understand and, more importantly, can't see. This is as true for individuals as it is for economic policymakers across the globe trying to factor a mind-boggling number of variables into their decisions—including taking a closer look at unpaid labor and the needs of communities historically overlooked by these policies.

Invisible Economics

"Have you seen those puzzles that are a triangle with a number of other triangles inscribed into them? The instructions read 'How many triangles can you find in this image?' And there are many triangles and groups of triangles together. 'Is there one economy?' is like 'Is there one triangle?' Rather, there are seven billion individual economies in a world where I exist and make my choices based on the situations that I encounter. And each individual person does the same," says economist Joshua Nadel ’11, who recently joined the Seattle Housing Authority as a budget analyst and formerly worked as a project manager of economic research and analysis for the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

Joshua explains that we can extrapolate from this individual experience to neighborhood and collective community experiences. "You can build those all the way up until you have one larger, broad economy," he says. "I think the issue is not whether there are multiple economies but, rather, that there are fundamentally different ways that people interact with the economy, and the economy can do fundamentally different things for different people. And that is not necessarily to say that there are different economies for different people. More precisely, the problem is that there is only one economy for a very diverse set of people." 

Economic policy that treats diverse circumstances as the same also excludes and ignores a broad swath of the work people do, especially the unpaid care and volunteer work done primarily by women. Women—in the United States, globally, and particularly within developing countries—perform dozens of hours per week of unpaid housekeeping, childcare, eldercare, and community volunteer work. A woman's paid work might hover around thirty-five hours per week, while her unpaid work might amount to another thirty, forty, or even fifty hours per week. 

"If you don't count that [unpaid work]," says economist Thalia Kidder ’77, who, up until September 2021, led Oxfam's Women's Economic Empowerment practice group, "you get a very male bias and white middle-class bias on what is really going on in terms of the economy." Economic policy aims to shape the production and distribution of goods and services; however, it typically only considers those that are monetized and paid. Globally, women and girls perform seventy-five percent of unpaid care work. In some developing countries in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, informal paid work and unpaid work can account for between fifty and ninety percent of a country's economy.

"Politicians and economic policymakers are basing what they do on monetized, formal work. But they're just getting this tiny aspect of the economy right," Thalia says. "It's biased against poor people, women, and ethnic minorities, wherever you are in the world." 

Advocating from Within

Joshua describes his previous position with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) as being part of a small think tank within a larger public development agency whose broad mission is to "create good jobs and build strong neighborhoods." As an analyst and project manager, Joshua's goal was to figure out how to do that without raising property or income taxes in a city with the country's highest cost of living, which meant looking at New York's budget.

"My job was twofold: one was to look at larger economic trends and see how that was going to impact New Yorkers and New York generally. So that included looking at national policies, especially in labor market areas, and trying to understand how they impact people in their day-to-day lives." 

The other projects Joshua managed at NYCEDC were concerned with determining incentives for businesses and developers to bring their ventures—and potential jobs—to New York City. In 2018, when Amazon was scouting locations for its second headquarters, he was tasked with estimating the tax revenue benefits that New York should expect from attracting Amazon (and other corporations), in order to limit the potential incentives or abatements that the city could make yet still make it possible for the corporate behemoth to provide upwards of 25,000 new jobs. 

But it was his work on bringing grocery services to food deserts around the city that Joshua found not only the most urgent but the most meaningful. In addition to the money acquired from sales taxes, incentivizing grocery stores where they are desperately needed ultimately helps to relieve a number of quality-of-life issues, including increasing health benefits to residents and decreasing traffic congestion. "We know what good, meaningful policies are, and it is often hard to pass those without a technical economic lens. I wish it weren't that way, but I also recognize that, if I have the ability to advocate for something like groceries in food deserts from an economic standpoint, then it's just another pathway for pushing something through, albeit by very traditional means." 

Thalia Kidder understands how difficult yet crucial it is to advocate from within institutions. She had been doing this work for Oxfam for more than twenty-four years—supporting women's organizations around the globe that keep their economies running with little or no recognition from economic policymakers.

"Ten years ago, even progressive international organizations didn't consider housework an issue, just as a problem to be avoided," she says, "but there were women's organizations and social enterprises ready to try something new." 

Thalia began her career at Oxfam in 1997 in Managua, Nicaragua. It was there, as an economic advisor, that she started seeing how local development projects ignored most of women's work and economic contributions because they were unpaid. It was a long journey to get people, from colleagues to policymakers, to understand that unpaid care work is about social justice as well as economics. 

"There was a lot of investment into women's enterprises [such as] producing and processing cashews and coffee and spices. Project managers would encourage women: 'Why don't you be head of the cooperative? Why don't you do the marketing or the finance?' Women would take on leadership positions but then they would drop out. Why? Because they were expected to do forty or fifty hours of unpaid care and domestic work" in addition to building and running their own businesses. 

Digging deeper into the issue via focus groups was enlightening. Thalia and her team coordinated discussions for both women and men to make visible all of their work and their time spent doing it. The groups considered farm work, paid work, childcare, eldercare, and housework as well as volunteer campaigns and other community activities. In all cases, even in different countries, men assumed that they worked more than women, at forty to fifty hours per week, but when unpaid care work was included, women, in fact, were working significantly longer hours than men—upwards of eighty hours each week.

Unpaid care work is a particularly insidious form of gender inequality, with wide-ranging consequences. It often prevents women from pursuing education and better-paying work, taking part in civic life and leisure activities, attending to their health and well-being, and breaking out of the cycle of poverty. The myth, however, is that nothing can be done about it. 

In 2013, Thalia and her colleagues developed Oxfam's Women's Economic Empowerment and Care initiative (WE-Care), which has since been implemented in more than twenty-five countries. WE-Care works with partners in development, local governments, civic organizations, and the private sector to increase public awareness around unpaid care work. Often this leads to more investment in water, laundry, and energy systems to reduce the time required for housework. The initiative also involves male politicians, religious leaders, and celebrities who engage men and boys to shift social norms that discourage men from participating in unpaid care work and hold women solely responsible for it. The initiative works toward gender equality by "recognizing, reducing, and redistributing unpaid care and domestic work," and its activities seek to move the needle toward understanding unpaid care work as an urgent economic and social justice issue.

For decades, NGOs have prioritized initiatives aimed at improving outcomes for women and girls, from addressing domestic violence to ensuring access to education; for much of that time, the notion of "housework" was a non-issue. The conversation has changed in the last fifteen years, Thalia says, and her work has sought to shift the broader narrative around unpaid care work and emphasize that women's time is, among other things, an economic quantity, particularly though not exclusively in developing countries.

Thalia's early focus-group approach was also a precursor to WE-Care's Household Care Survey (HCS), which measures all aspects of unpaid care conducted by women, men, and children, including time spent. The survey is context-specific and can serve as baseline research for policymakers, development workers, and educators.

"The work we're talking about can be arduous, difficult, and stressful. And it's significant, valuable work for well-being and a healthy society...It shouldn't be just women's responsibility," Thalia says. "It's not a personal choice issue; it's about economic policy and justice. Women getting out of poverty is just not going to happen if you have no laundry facility or, worse, you carry water for three hours a day or cook over an open fire. And that's even before you take care of the kids and grandparents. "The northern industrialized countries' view of women's economic advancement has been biased towards money, rather than looking at time. And it is also true for working-class women in the United States and in the United Kingdom. How many women do you know who haven't tried to advance in their lives and careers because they don't have the time?" 

A Matter of Perception

Concerns about the economy loom large in our collective consciousness. Americans worry about how far their wages will go—for a mortgage or gas or groceries—or whether they can improve on the financial circumstances achieved by their parents. But when asked how they feel they are doing financially, many draw a distinction between the broader economy "out there" and their own personal circumstance. As Joshua Nadel notes, "Often our perceptions of what is happening in the world and what matters are based on what we can see. And the things that direct us in our immediate neighborhoods are hyper-localized effects. But there is also this idea that, outside of my immediate circle, things are much worse or harder than I am actually finding them to be." This doesn't prevent the average American from feeling the sting of rising inflation since the pandemic. But here's what a lot of Americans may not realize: when interest rates are low, and inflation is low, it's easier to borrow and spend money and there is significantly more venture capital flowing through the economy that subsidizes a whole host of daily goods. 

"Think back about seven, eight years ago when a Netflix account cost $6 and Ubers felt as if they cost practically nothing," Joshua says. "Everything seemed as if it was too good to be true. Now, Ubers are much more expensive and Netflix is much more expensive. That is because the amount of money that was wildly flowing through the economy was the result of interest rates being so low. Interest rates rising has dried up that spigot. Venture capital had subsidized a very comfortable lifestyle in many ways." 

So our perception of what consumer goods cost is skewed by money flowing through the economy that we might not even realize is there. We think certain goods, like a Netflix account, shouldn't cost that much, largely unaware of the billion-dollar companies backing them. But without that additional capital flowing through the economy, the goods would cost a lot more. And, Joshua speculates, maybe some of them should.

"What really is the difference between a four percent and a two percent and a nine percent unemployment rate if you have kept your job? Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs and lost their means of survival"—quite literally, Josh notes. There's evidence that unemployment drives up mortality rates, given its stressfulness combined with the loss of employer-provided health insurance. "Some of those things you might not feel individually, but they have a really strong impact."

Proof That Change is Possible

If there's one thing that Oxfam's WE-Care initiative shows, it's that how we perceive unpaid and informal paid work is crucial, and Thalia Kidder has dedicated her career to making this typically overlooked share of the economy visible to international development workers, communities (particularly men and boys), governments, and economic policymakers around the world.

Even as WE-Care works to change thinking around housework, for example, as a social-justice issue, that thinking has to move up to strategy and policy. "Don't just talk about the problem; talk about solutions. Talk about the fact that patterns of unpaid care work can change and change fast if employers invest, if the government invests, and if social norms and narratives change in families, in schools, etc.," Thalia says.

Of course, there's no silver bullet for solving problematically long hours of unpaid care work for women. It is not, Thalia explains, just a matter of getting more household equipment like stoves and washing machines into women's hands, providing more government services and infrastructure, and addressing cultural norms and beliefs to recognize domestic labor as shared work, highly skilled, and significant. Real change requires all of the above.

"The local researchers did rigorous quantitative studies," Thalia says, interviewing 300 Zimbabwean couples involved in WE-Care and interviewing them again eighteen months later. The analysis showed, on average, that men were doing more care work and the women were doing less and the attitudes had changed. When families have household equipment and more government services and really work on changing the norms, it doesn't take a generation (or longer) for change to take root. After eighteen months of these focused efforts, women recouped forty-five to seventy minutes a day. An extra hour is a lot—certainly for anyone raising kids, but the time savings transcend parenthood. "This is not just a gender issue. It's a race issue. It's a class issue. It's an immigrant issue," Thalia notes. "Studies have shown that the services that facilitate unpaid care and domestic work are much worse if you are in a Black area, a poor area, or in immigrant communities."

In February of 2021, Oxfam performed a "listening exercise" with nonprofit leaders from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Americas, and the United Kingdom. Participants emphasized how even before the pandemic, undervaluing women's work had negative consequences. Since the pandemic, many economic policy decisions have reinforced the bias toward formal, paid, and "productive" work, Thalia says. Migrants, ethnic, and racialized minority women and men moved into precarious employment in undervalued types of work. In the United States, immigrants are still often relegated to cash-based, informal jobs, and those who don't have a Social Security number may not be factored into economic policies, she adds.

"In economic crisis, what happens is that the cost of providing care gets shifted from the government to families and women, especially poor, immigrant, and Black women. It's no surprise that inequality is increasing along all of these biases," Thalia explains. "Because how care is provided in any society is a combination of the government, employers, nonprofits, families, trade unions, and anybody in civil society that provides services. If one or more places cuts care services or employees' benefits, the need and the care work don't go away. The costs of caring get shifted back onto unpaid careers.

"This is a poverty and social justice issue. It's not just about whether we think women should be in the kitchen or not."


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Lillien Waller is a poet, essayist, and editor. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets, and she is editor of the anthology American Ghost: Poets on Life after Industry (Stockport Flats). Lillien is a Cave Canem Fellow and a Kresge Artist Fellow in the Literary Arts. She lives in Detroit. This article was originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.