Mothernomics - The Economics of Motherhood
by C.A. L'Hirondelle, May 2004, updated Dec. 2011

"Unpaid female caregiving is not only the life-blood of families, it is the very heart of the economy"
— Ann Crittenden, The Price of Motherhood (2001)

"Very often the best way to determine the contributions of people or things to an on-going process
is to see what happens in their absence."

—Jackson Grayson, The Illusion of Wage and Price Control,
Michael Walker editor, published by the Fraser Institute (1976)


A university text book on economics by Prentice-Hall (1996) states: "The rewards of a market system are linked to productivity..." One would think then that since women produce the entire human species, they would be the richest people in the world. However, 70% of those living in abject poverty in the world are women and poverty is also prevalent for women here in Canada. "As soon as a woman has a child, her income plummets..." writes Marika Morris, from the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (2001). Information from Statistics Canada reveals that two thirds of minimum wage earners are women, 56% of female single parents are poor (compared to 24% for male) and 49% of single women over 65 are poor.

"If you can't afford kids, don't have 'em" is a common refrain used to justify this situation. In an article titled "Poverty is Voluntary", Fraser Institute researcher Fred McMahon advocates ending welfare because it "subsidize[s] bad choices." He writes, "The end of welfare would eliminate the two main routes for the 'inheritance' of poverty —the welfare culture and single-mother families." (Vancouver Sun, Aug. 9, 01)


This view hinges on the assumption that having a child is a personal choice and responsibility — as if society does not need children, therefore it has no obligation to provide for their needs or the needs of those who care for the them. However, a closer examination reveals that the opposite is true, and is not just stated by feminist economists, but is also inadvertently stated by conservative free marketers, e.g. : "Very often the best way to determine the contributions of people or things to an on-going process is to see what happens in their absence." (Jackson Grayson, The Illusion of Wage and Price Control published by the Fraser Instituted 1976, edited by Michael Walker.)

And evidence of this also appears in mainstream newspapers:

  • "Unto Canada, too few children are born" is the headline of a David Frum newspaper column in the National Post (Dec. 22, 04).
  • "Atlantic Canada will face a 'long, slow and torturous decline' unless its population begins growing"(Globe & Mail, March 27, 04).
  • "If we are not producing more citizens who will ultimately consume, that is a problem," (Alan Mirabelli, Vanier Institute of the Family, quoted in the Globe & Mail, Aug. 12, 03).
  • "Until we can produce [emphasis added] the labour force we need to remain competitive in the world we'll have to import it." (Victoria Times Colonist editorial, Sept. 9, 03.)

"Not enough babies: Report fingers new threat to economy" — Wall Street Journal, Aug. 23, 2005 (US)

Not having children might be financially wise individually but when the desired goal of society —as stated repeatedly by leaders of all stripes— is for unlimited economic growth, then it becomes a massive disaster.


Feminists have pointed out that it is the so-called 'non-productive' work that is the prerequisite for all other work. This idea is at first hard to grasp because unpaid work is like air: it is everywhere, essential for life, but is unnoticed and unvalued, unless it disappears.

But shouldn't mothers just be happy they get paid in hugs? This idea would only work if you could also pay your rent in hugs, or if other people were paid in hugs. But as Ann Crittenden states: "Virtues and sacrifices, when expected of one group of people and not of everyone become the mark of an underclass." (The Price of Motherhood 2001)

Society has a real problem when those doing essential and beneficial work like raising children are financially penalized, while at the same time harmful industries reap financial rewards because they are considered 'productive' such as the tobacco, alcohol and junk food industries. It is time to toss the productivity rule into the dustbin of history and who better to do the tossing than those who do the cleaning.

The idea that your "productiveness" determines your right to a decent life is clearly outdated. But it is not only mothers who suffer from the "unproductive" label. As automation replaces human labour with machines, more people fall into the "unproductive", "unpaid" and "poverty" category. (See also The Swarm Economy by Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge)


This leaves us with four options:

  • The Luddite solution - smash technology because it robs people's means to "make a living";
  • The Ecocide solution - increase consumption to create more jobs;
  • The War on the Poor solution - accept that people deemed "unproductive" by conventional economics are left to live and die in poverty;
  • Or, the only just and realistic option, implement a universal guaranteed livable income.

A Guaranteed Livable Income is environmentally and economically feasible (many costs of poverty and poor health from poverty will be vastly reduced) and will create productive choice for people and the planet. A GLI is a goal that addresses the lives of those most devastated by the current death-cycle economy and would simultaneously address determinants of health, social justice, economic democracy and replacing the punitive, intrusive and wasteful welfarce system. (See: Through the eyes of a benefits advisor: a plea for a basic income 2011)

A version of this article appeared in the May 2004 issue of Focus Magazine (Victoria BC Canada), updated 2011.

Related Articles:

Defining Money and Productive

GLI and Population
Housework under Capitalism
Productive Choice
What is Productive
The Manly Mythology of Work

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