The $762.5 billion industry we don’t care about

The $762.5 billion industry we don’t care about

It is easy to measure the national economic value of primary industry production, of manufacturing, and of the wholesale and retail sectors. But many Australians don’t work in profit-focused enterprises, so how do we measure and recognise their contribution to the economy and the contribution of those who provide the paid and unpaid care that supports our society? Does care work count?

The care economy v the market economy

Mainstream economics has traditionally only considered goods and services in the market as productive. This ignores the fact that markets could not continue to operate without an ongoing workforce, which is supplied by social reproduction in families. The care economy provides a new vision of economic life that counts unpaid work in statistics, explains the role of care (as well as commodities) in the working of economies, and integrates the care economy into policy.

The scope of the care economy

The care economy comprises paid care, unpaid care, and government investment in the care sector. It is defined as:

“The total (paid and unpaid) labour required to meet the needs of children to be cared for and educated, everybody’s physical and mental health that requires attention, and the needs of individuals who require assistance with the activities of daily living because of illness, age or disability”.

“Care work” provides assistance and support to community members suffering from mental illness, chronic ill-health, terminal illness, disability and frailty associated with ageing. The volunteer sector is a key component of the care economy. The care economy therefore operates in a wide range of care settings, including: paid care in childcare, schools, hospitals and other health care facilities, and disability and aged care facilities; and unpaid care of children, elderly people and people with disabilities in homes and community settings and by volunteers in formal health, disability and aged-care facilities.

Paid care is provided usually by qualified professionals and trained assistants. Unpaid care is provided by families, friends and neighbours, by members of non-government organisations, and by community volunteers.

The value of the care economy

Although there is vast literature on different aspects of the Australian care economy, until recently there has been no comprehensive mapping of it. Given the complexity of care work and its profound social and economic implications for our nation, it is crucial that this sector is defined and valued as a distinct segment of economic activity. The recent research reports [2010 and 2012] commissioned by economicSecurity4Women (eS4W), a national women’s alliance under the Australian Government’s Office for Women, draw attention to the worth of the care economy and the risk to Australia of ignoring its economic value in these changing times.

The Scoping the Australian Care Economy report, published in 2010, was the first research in Australia to examine the size and significance of the care economy. The recently released report, Counting on Care Work in Australia, built upon this scoping data and has quantified the Australian care economy for the first time.

The Counting on Care Work in Australia report examined the three intersecting spheres of paid care work, unpaid care work and government investment in the care sector and sought to measure the labour and resources devoted to the daily care of Australians including: care of children and those who are elderly or disabled; education of children from kindergarten to year 12; and delivery of health care to both well and sick citizens regardless of age.


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