Family Time: The Social Organization of Care

Family Time: The Social Organization of Care

Family Time: The Social Organization of Care

Family Time: The Social Organization of Care


One of the central issues within feminist economics is unpaid work. There is a strong feeling that conventional economics fails to properly measure the benefits to society of looking after a household and caring for our families. This title examines issues relating to this subject.


Michael Bittman and Nancy Folbre

How do families juggle the competing demands of paid employment and care for one another? The ways that people spend their time are surely as important as the ways they spend their money. Opportunities for close personal and emotional interaction are key to the quality of life and the development of human capabilities. Yet, modern accounting systems devote far more attention to money than to time. National statistical agencies have only recently begun to collect systematic time-use diaries that allow for accurate cross-sectional and longitudinal comparisons. The growing availability of these important data intensifies the need to develop strong conceptual frameworks for understanding the ways people allocate their time.

In this volume, we bring together critical analyses of the social organization of time devoted to the care of family members, especially young children and the elderly. Gary Becker and many economists influenced by the Chicago school of neoclassical economic theory express confidence that individuals make efficient decisions regarding time allocation that lead to socially desirable results. We are less optimistic, pointing to ways that the structure of social institutions and altruistic commitments can lead to inefficient and unfair outcomes. Public policies that have evolved without much consideration of their consequences for family life impose significant constraints on individual choices.

The work of caring for dependents creates positive spillovers for society as a whole, creating and maintaining the next generation of workers and citizens. Yet, the individuals who pay the highest costs in terms of both time and money derive few of the pecuniary benefits. Both capitalist firms and public enterprises tend to take the larger supply of human and social capital as a given. They reward and promote individuals who devote themselves to paid work, focusing on outcomes easily measured in the metric of the market. As a result, employees who make substantial time commitments to family or community work generally pay a large social and economic penalty.

The disjuncture between individual and social benefits is intensified by the coordination problems that arise when workers are subject to fierce, "winner-takes-all" conditions in the labor market. Individuals who might prefer to work shorter hours or to take time out of paid employment while their children are young or their parents are in poor health fear displacement by coworkers unencumbered by

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