Monday, July 18, 2005

Mothers' milk and measures of economic output

This recent abstract from Julie Smith and Lindy Ingham in the journal Feminist Economics suggests that national income and product accounts should include the value of breastmilk in the category for food production:
Thoughtful economists have long been aware of the limitations of national accounting and GDP in measuring economic activity and material well-being. Feminist economists criticize the failure to count women's unpaid and reproductive work in measures of economic production. This paper examines the treatment of human milk production in national accounting guidelines. Human milk is an important resource produced by women. Significant maternal and child health costs result from children's premature weaning onto formula or solid food. While human milk production meets the standard national accounting criteria for inclusion in GDP, current practice is to ignore its significant economic value and the substantial private and public health costs of commercial breastmilk substitutes. Economic output measures such as GDP thus are incomplete and biased estimates of national food production and overall economic output, and they distort policy priorities to the disadvantage of women and children.
Okay, mother's milk on its own might not compete in quantity or economic importance with the major industrial contributors to our national well-being, such as Cargill or Coca Cola. But most economists would acknowledge that national income accounts don't handle home production of goods and services very well.

The abstract is a reminder about how difficult it is to quantify the value of the goods and services that count most. Take parenting, for example. Faced with the two income trap, many middle-class families I know -- including ours -- have lowered their stress and improved their quality of life by scaling back to one wage or salary. In many of these families, but still surely far short of half, the father is the main daytime caretaker for children. For all its faults, modern American society seems to offer a number of options for fathers to be full-time caretakers and still be men by whatever definition they like (I was reflecting on this yesterday afternoon while struggling up a grueling rocky mountain bike trail, far behind a friend who is a full-time dad, who just popped his front wheel over the boulders and sailed right up). In another fraction of these families, the father is the main salary earner, but the division of parenting and household labor is fair to both parents. Breastmilk may not have a market price, but it provides a nice example of a valuable home produced good. And it's not the only one. I think many families that put one person's full-time work into home production could only look poorer than a comparable two-salary family when viewed through green eye shades.


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