February 27, 2024

Economix Blog: Nancy Folbre: The Best Countries for Non-Mothers


Nancy Folbre is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

It’s so great to live in a country where women are allowed to drive! It would be so much fun to visit Iceland, where the prime minister is a woman who is cleaning up the financial mess!

Today’s Economist

Perspectives from expert contributors.

The recently released Newsweek/Daily Beast list of the top-ranked countries for women shows the United States in the respectable, though certainly not superlative, eighth position.

Good to celebrate. But before getting too chipper, consider the methodology used to rank 165 countries on “expansive rights and quality of life.” It assesses women’s economic success in terms of their ability to emulate men’s traditional gender roles, with no consideration of support for raising children or caring for other dependent family members.

The economics domain, one of five quantitative clusters used to construct the index, includes four components:

¶ Whether women can work in all industries
¶ Percentage of women in the labor force
¶ Women’s wages as a percentage of men’s
¶ Ability of women to rise to positions of enterprise leadership

These measures are especially important for assessing women’s earnings, but they say little about family income or vulnerability to poverty.

Single women without children rely largely on their own earnings. But the economic well-being of mothers is heavily influenced by assistance (both financial and direct) from fathers and by publicly provided family allowances or tax subsidies for child rearing. Further, mothers’ ability to find and keep decent jobs is shaped by public policies such as paid family leaves from work.

As I pointed out in a previous post about best-country-for-women rankings, it’s easier to measure rights and achievements than obligations and commitments. Still, there’s plenty of international data available on percentages of families maintained by mothers alone, mothers living in poverty and differences in support for employed parents.

Jody Heymann, founding director of the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University, offers an excellent overview of policy issues in her book “Forgotten Families.”

Public support for family care, particularly generous in Nordic countries, tends to improve women’s ability to combine paid and unpaid work, explaining why Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland are each ranked higher than the United States on the Newsweek/Daily Beast list.

But the rankings would change considerably if policies relevant to mothers were factored in. For instance, consideration of early childhood education and paid leaves from work would move France up from its 12th position on the list and move the United States way down.

The underlying problem is that most journalists, like most economists, define work as a paid activity and consider family care a form of leisure – a lifestyle choice.

But consider what happens when caregivers reduce their supply of unpaid labor and we must purchase substitutes for the services they provide. Our cost of living goes up.

Our future economic prospects also go down. Family care has huge consequences for the composition and capabilities of our national labor force, as well as the quality of our daily lives.

Family care requires money as well as time, and high unemployment rates in this country have hit young mothers particularly hard. More than 40 percent of households headed by women now live in poverty. Among children, poverty rates have reached 22 percent.

Reduced public commitments to safety net programs such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families have increased economic vulnerability. The share of single mothers who have become “disconnected,” reporting no income and no welfare assistance, increased to one in five in 2009 from one in eight in 1996.

A recent Urban Institute report estimates that more than 10 percent of mothers living in poverty are experiencing severe depression, posing risks to the healthy development of their infants or toddlers.

Just how much would it cheer these mothers up to learn that a woman holds a position of enterprise leadership at Newsweek/The Daily Beast?

Next time you see a ranking of countries best for women, ask which women, exactly, are being ranked.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=ab824e668cf77a2fd377b37377b42700

Speak Your Mind