The Biden administration recently announced a set of executive orders intended to “improve care for hard-working families while supporting care workers and family caregivers.” Some of these efforts have merit, including a pilot program aimed at supporting family members who care for relatives with dementia at home.
However, the rationale for these executive orders is striking. The administration says:
[M]any Americans — particularly women — stay out of the workforce to care for their families, making it hard for businesses to attract and retain a skilled workforce and for the economy to grow. A BCG brief forecasts losses of $290 billion each year in gross domestic product in 2030 and beyond if the U.S. fails to address the lack of affordable child care.
The Biden administration, apparently, believes it is bad for women to “stay out of the workforce to care for their families” because it is bad for GDP growth. In reaching this conclusion, the administration cites a report by the giant consulting firm BCG, which laments that CEOs are “grappling with labor shortages and broader talent concerns.”
That BCG report notes the value of “unpaid caregiving” in the United States is equivalent to $2.5 to $3.5 trillion. It would be better, BCG alleges, if the work of parents caring for their kids, and family members caring for the elderly, mostly took place in the formal economy.
BCG writes that government should create, among other things, a government-run childcare system that begins at birth. It recommends that “policymakers … recognize the need for subsidized or universal programs” so workers can “access … [paid] childcare.” This is because:
[O]ur … survey found that more than 40% of employed caregivers have missed more than five days of work over the last year simply because their paid-care support has fallen through. Further, when employees end up quitting, corporations are forced to devote additional resources to replace them. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, turnover costs can range from six to nine months of the replaced employee’s salary.
It might be better for GDP growth — and apparently some business leaders’ staffing problems — if the moms (and sometimes dads) taking care of little kids and family members rejoined the paid workforce and put their kids in paid childcare. But surveys are clear that this is not what many parents prefer to do.
Also, the $3.5 trillion in incalculable value full-time mothers provide does not somehow become worthless or unimportant just because it is outside the formal economy. Indeed, supporting breadwinner-homemaker families is good for many businesses, as it provides a stable dynamic that parents actually want when taking care of little kids!
We need a better way to value homemaking, one that is not focused on GDP growth above all other possible metrics. The GDP is a useful metric, but it is also merely a metric. It cannot measure the strength of America’s families, the well-being of her children, or the vibrancy of her communities.
Homemakers serve as a type of vital national infrastructure. They care for their families and communities. Their many indispensable services may not be reflected in the GDP, but are certainly recognized by their children and neighbors.
The Biden administration’s focus on getting homemakers into the workforce is short-sighted. It may improve GDP growth, but there is no reason to believe that is what American families want or need.
A version of this essay originally appeared at the author’s Substack.