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After her public lecture and participation in the conference on 'Epistemologies of Care - Rethinking Global Political Economy,' Nancy Folbre (University of Massachusetts Amherst) speaks to us about 'being born again' early on in her academic career, the hybridization of a range of theories to blend into what became the 'Economics of Care' and changes in societal attitudes towards care.

Kind of born again

I loved the immersion in ideas, argument, and ethics that philosophy offered, but it led me toward  Marxian theory and political economy. I did not have enough background in either math or economics to apply to graduate school in economics, but because I was proficient in Spanish I was able to get some financial support in the Latin American Studies program where I could do a bit of catching up. I entered the economics program at the University of Texas, but had little affinity with the faculty there. Paul Sweezy came and visited for almost a week, giving several lectures, and was very kind to all the student radicals interested in his ideas, including me.  He encouraged me to switch to a Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts, which had just hired several prominent "New Left" economists.  When I arrived there, I found an intellectually open and exciting environment, including faculty in philosophy and anthropology as well as economics. I was kind of born again.

Care as a rubric

In the Latin American Studies program at U.T. I had a work-study job at the Population Research Center and got very interested in demography. I saw a connection with feminist theory, was able to pursue that at the University of Massachusetts, had an advisor (from the Philosophy Department) very interested in theories of patriarchy... In the 1990s, some feminist economists began organizing conference sessions and, ultimately, forming an international association. I found an audience for research that, in a sense, hybridized Marxian theories of the labor process, feminist theories of exploitation, and the welfare economics of public goods. "Care" became a good rubric. Interest in the topic grew slowly, but steadily, fertilized I think by many Nordic feminists.

Because of lived experience

As a result of global pandemic the scope of "feasibility" has suddenly altered, hasn't it? I have concentrated much of my effort on trying to persuade economists to pay more attention to both paid and unpaid care work and to explain why it is undervalued by the market. I think many people are now on board with this idea--not as a result of academic persuasion (though I'd like to think that played a role), but because of their lived experience: women's entrance into paid employment has given them more voice and more bargaining power and also increased the opportunity cost of unpaid care.

To change the structure?  We need to improve both our social and our physical environments

Families, the market and the state all have to change. Families need to become less dependent on a gendered division of labor; markets have to recognize and reward work that creates social rather than merely private value and to discourage choices that degrade our environments. States need to develop more equitable and sustainable social safety nets. We need to move toward a sustainable and global social democracy.

Mutual dependence dramatized

We don't really know yet, but I do think that the pandemic dramatizes our mutual dependence on one another in powerful ways. We have seen how dependent we are on the care of others, and also become aware of a  vivid spectrum of vulnerability. Doctors and nurses face terrible risks, as do vital transportation, food service, and elder care workers. College-educated workers have much greater opportunities to work safely from home than others do. None of the medical or economic trauma can be rationalized as a result of bad behavior on the part of anyone other than political leaders who failed to act quickly and decisively enough.

Nancy Folbre is Director of the Program on Gender and Care Work at the Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts Amherst. She frequently writes on Care and the Economics of Care on her blog 'Care Talk.'

Find more information about the 'Epistemologies of Care - Rethinking Global Political Economy' and Nancy Folbre's public lecture on 'Accounting for Care' at Amsterdam Law School.