Mothers' Day Gifts: Separate, Unequal, and Undervalued

I don’t celebrate  Mothers’ Day. Somewhere along the line, after years of obligatory gifts, the woman who produced me said “enough.” A refugee from the “Mad Men” era, she got it: this holiday, dedicated to the nation’s progenitors, had Hallmark written all over it. Just another chance for consumption, a shot of adrenalin for the retail economy.


What a crass take on parenthood, such a distortion of that rosy vision of mother and apple pie. You bet. Here’s an ersatz want ad, drafted some time ago, by economist Shirley Burggraf:

Parents willing to bear, rear, and educate children for the next generation of social security taxpayers and to carry on the American culture of learning and progress. Quality parenting preferred. Large commitments of time and money required. At least one parent must work a double shift and/or sacrifice tenure and upward mobility in the job market. Salary: 0. Pension benefits: 0. Profits and dividends: 0

“Would anyone be answering this ad in the twenty-first century?” Burggraf asked the readers of her book, The Feminine Economy and Economic Man.

We don’t value caregiving. Mothers across the socioeconomic spectrum are ciphers on our national ledger sheets. You don’t see us anywhere in the Gross Domestic Product.  Poor mothers—no surprise—are even more invisible. We blame them for carelessly breeding, and then abandon them as they struggle to rear our precious human capital.

Save the Children just released its annual report on the state of the world’s mothers.  This year, they focused on mothers in urban areas—among the worst places in the world to rear children. As Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization writes in the foreword:

These are the women and children left behind by this century’s spectacular socioeconomic advances. Far too often, even the simplest and most affordable health-promoting and lifesaving interventions—like immunizations, vitamin supplements, safe drinking water, and prenatal check-ups—fail to reach them. Their plight is largely invisible.

The report’s scorecard—which ranks maternal health, children’s well-being, and educational, economic, and political status—is strewn with the ravages of poverty in the cities of developing nations. Somalia sits at the very bottom, following Haiti, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Niger, Mali, the Central African Republic, and DR Congo. Norway, Finland, and Iceland—whose educational outcomes Americans relentlessly covet—take the top three spots.

The United States is not in the top ten; we rank 33rd. Apparently, cities in this First World nation of ours have some of the highest urban infant mortality rates among advanced economies. Washington, DC, with its 6.6 deaths per 1,000 live births, leads the pack of 25 capital cities across the globe. Disparities within the District of Columbia are gaping. Infants in Washington’s Ward 8, where half of all children live in poverty, are dying at a rate more than 10 times higher than their tiny peers in wealthy Ward 3.

Cleveland and Detroit are worse: with their respective infant mortality rates of 14.1 and 12.4, they sit in a rarified circle of ten American cities—including Baltimore, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Columbus—where infant death rates surpassed 8.9. As for women’s life expectancy rates: they cluster along race lines, with the biggest gaps between Asian and African American women in Chicago, where Asian women outlive black mothers by 14 years.

We need a new accounting.

Lately, an alternative framework has emerged, a stealth movement to radically reformulate economics, derived—wouldn’t you know?—from the Greek word, okonomia, for managing the household. Among those leading the charge is Riane Eisler, a social scientist, attorney, and cultural critic, who heads up the Center for Partnership Studies.

Last fall, the organization released a series of Social Wealth Economic Indicators to fill in the egregious gaps of the GDP. Using data from the O.E.C.D., the World Health Organization, and the United Nations, Eisler and Indradeep Ghosh, an economics professor at Haverford, set forth new measures that would capture the value of care work in producing high-quality human capital.

For some time now, the world has been looking at a slew of new economic indicators focused on outputs, including poverty rates and educational attainment. But the critical inputs have gone missing. Based on findings from neuroscience, the SWEIs measure human capacity much more broadly, adding to the traditional outputs time spent on unpaid care work, long-term care wages, the gender gap in earnings, and a global gender gap index.

The poor, orphaned inputs find their home in the Care Investment Indicators—with creation of human capacity number one. Next up are public spending on family benefits, percentage of GDP for public funding of child care and early education, paid family leave, long-term care, employer support for child care, GDP share for environmental protection, and the costs of education and prison.

Sounds like a plan, doesn’t it? It’s time to do a little revaluation of our human assets.


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