Imagine this scenario: two married-couple families have the same income—let’s say $50,000—and each family takes care of two children. In the eyes of the market, there is no difference between the families: they have the same income, are responsible for the same number of dependents, and will receive the same government benefits.

What if, though, the first family has one full-time earner who makes $50,000 and one caretaker who looks after their children. In contrast, the second family has two full-time earners making $25,000 each who also have to pay for child care fees, extra transportation to and from work, and other additional expenses. In this context, the situation starts to look much different for each household, with the first having significantly more disposable income and time to spend with their children.

That is, of course, because taking care of another person is often a full-time job, regardless of whether it is paid or unpaid. Any parent, nurse, care worker, or teacher could tell you that. Yet looking solely at caretaker income as a metric does not reflect this fact—because many caretakers are underpaid, or not paid at all.

This quandary was posed last week by Nancy Folbre, economist at University of Massachusetts Amherst, at an Inequality Workshop co-hosted by TCF’s Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative. Folbre, who has written extensively on this issue for the New York Times Economix blog, often uses the example above of the two families in order to point out how little space there is for unpaid care in mainstream, market-centric economic discourse. In other words, just because it’s hard to put a price tag on such care or measure its quality, does not mean care is not economically valuable.

Care Should Be Valued

Good quality care, which is more likely to result in a more productive adult or less sickly elder, means better individual and societal returns in the long run. Even simple things such as reading to your children have proven to make a world of difference for a child’s success later in life, leading to better language development and greater school achievement. Home visitation programs like Nurse Family Partnership, which help first-time, low-income mothers learn healthier and more nurturing parenting techniques, have seen many positive results, including reduced child mortality and increased educational achievement among children born to women who participated in the program.

And this is just what has been studied and quantified—good care improves our lives in countless, invaluable ways every day. A child who stays home sick won’t infect her schoolmates, while a teenager whose mother counseled him through his first breakup will be more likely to do the same for a friend.  

Unfortunately, despite the fact that care work greatly improves our standard of living, care professions are some of America’s worst paid jobs with the worst benefits. What’s more is that our country’s policies actively discriminate against the idea of care as work, especially when it comes to one’s own family. One example is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), for which stay-at-home parents are ineligible since they aren’t earning income. However, as Folbre points out, if two neighboring families swapped their children during the workday and paid each other the same amount for this child care—thus netting zero dollars in this scheme—they could each receive an EITC credit of up to $5,548 that they wouldn’t receive otherwise. This scenario—in which caring for one’s own children is not valued, but caring for your neighbors’ is—reveals just how nonsensical our country’s approach to care work can be.

Women’s Work

It’s no secret that care work is overwhelmingly done by women. Take this fact, for example: the single largest determinant of whether a male provides care for his parents is if he has a sister. If he does, then the likelihood that he will provide care drops sharply. It’s a simple illustration, but one that glaringly encapsulates the gender norms of care work.

So what does this mean for the economic value of caring? Well, since it is female-dominated, it suffers from the “gender reduction” that working women typically face in our country. As Folbre notes, women who enter traditionally “feminine” jobs such as care work suffer low incomes, and those who take time out of paid employment to care for their family receive none at all. On the other hand, occupational gender nonconformity—in this case, women entering traditionally male-dominated jobs—not only gets women lower wages for the same work, but has also proven to penalize them in the dating and marriage market. Basically, women can’t win.

Recognizing Care’s True Worth

So how can policy help? Folbre presented a long list­ of opportunities to help change the status quo at the conference. She advocates for encouraging gender neutrality in care provision (such as offering both paternity and maternity leave), increasing pay and benefits in care occupations, and providing more public support for low-income caregivers. Decoupling benefits like Social Security and tax credits from paid employment, so that one does not need to have an income to receive them, would also help, as would implementing a cash allowance for parents and caregivers.

We can do better. If care work fails to fit into a market-centric system, then market-centrism fails us. Care work is real work, whether or not it’s quantified by a paycheck.