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Invisible Heart


There has been much talk about family values in recent years, but little examination of the economic forces that are exploding family life and limiting the caregiving that families can provide. As Folbre points out in her provocative and insightful new book, every society must confront the problem of balancing self-interested pursuits with care for others—including children, the elderly, and the infirm. Historically, most societies enjoyed an increased supply of care by maintaining strict limits on women’s ...

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There has been much talk about family values in recent years, but little examination of the economic forces that are exploding family life and limiting the caregiving that families can provide. As Folbre points out in her provocative and insightful new book, every society must confront the problem of balancing self-interested pursuits with care for others—including children, the elderly, and the infirm. Historically, most societies enjoyed an increased supply of care by maintaining strict limits on women’s freedom. But as these limits happily and inevitably give way, there are many consequences for those who still need care.

Using the image of “the invisible heart” to evoke the forces of compassion that must temper the forces of self-interest, Folbre argues that if we don’t establish a new set of rules defining our mutual responsibilities for caregiving, the penalties suffered by the needy—our very families—will increase. Intensified economic competition may drive altruism and families out of business.

A leading feminist economist, Nancy Folbre writes in a lively, personal style—Molly Ivins cheek-to-cheek with John Kenneth Galbraith—and develops a distinctive approach to the economics of care. Unlike others who praise family values, Folbre acknowledges the complicated relationship between women and altruism. Her book offers new interpretations of such policy issues as welfare reform, school finance, and progressive taxation, and it confronts the challenges of globalization, outlining strategies for developing an economic system that rewards both individual achievement and care for others.

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Editorial Reviews

Emma Rothschild
Important and outstandingly provocative book about the economics of care and reciprocity.
American Prospect
[W]ritten with clarity and simplicity of style...a pleasure to read.
Chronicle of Higher Education
A rallying cry for change.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As the "invisible hand" of the free market and the competitive individualism it engenders increasingly dominate public life, contends UMass-Amherst economist and MacArthur fellow Folbre (Who Pays for the Kids?), we risk losing the other necessary component of a healthy society: "the invisible heart," a care system for children, the aged and the infirm. The market does not provide such support, and in the prescribed labor divisions of old, women fulfilled this need for little or no recompense. But now that women have begun to shuck off this enforced role, where, asks Folbre, will care come from? In seeking an answer, she delivers an incisive, informed social critique. Government, she contends, provides a bureaucratic hodgepodge of programs that serves few well and punishes the poor. Regressive taxation assures that some will be able to afford more care than others; unequal school funding guarantees some will become better educated than others. Corporations neglect social responsibilities in favor of the bottom line. In the end, Folbre concludes, we are all responsible for one another, but only radical changes in how we live and work democratic control of the economy, a dramatic redistribution of wealth and so on will strengthen the ethic of solidarity and reciprocity that is a prerequisite for such care. Folbre makes an important contribution to the discussion of what our society could be, and her humor and insight elevate her book above mere political diatribe. (Apr. 1) Forecast: Folbre's progressive/feminist response to "compassionate conservatism" should spark lively debate and sales. This is perfect for the sociology or cultural crit classroom and will also appeal to fans of fellow MacArthur recipient Mike Davis (Prisoners of the American Dream). Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
MacArthur Award winner Folbre (economics, Univ. of Massachusetts) specializes in the interaction of feminist theory and political economy. In this readable, well-documented, and thought-provoking work, she discusses the invisible heart of caring labor, which is not easily put in terms of dollars. She explains how this concept relates to Adam Smith's notion of the invisible hand with regard to supply and demand and the pursuit of self-interests. For centuries, women provided care for free in the home. Now, with more of them working outside the home, what used to be a priority for them is in the hands of institutions that do not obtain the funding priorities other endeavors have in the global economy. The ability to provide personal and loving care is being eroded. Folbre discusses how government, society, and employers can look at economic theory and practice to prioritize what individuals and institutions can do for the care of children, the sick, and the elderly. A good choice for academic and large public libraries.--Steven J. Mayover, formerly with the Free Lib. of Philadelphia Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Arguing that caring labor (paid and unpaid) has been unfairly ignored by most economists, Folbre (economics, U. of Massachusetts) attempts to link economics with the values of caring, sharing, and reciprocity, which she terms "family values." She argues that, historically, most societies guaranteed caring labor by maintaining strict limits on women's freedom. She contends that as these limits give way and society is increasingly dominated by the market, we need to develop more democratic and egalitarian rules for sharing care responsibilities. She looks at economic theory, current policy, and strategies for the future and concludes that some kind of market socialism is preferable to runaway capitalism. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565847477
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 5/1/2002
  • Pages: 292
  • Sales rank: 895,558
  • Product dimensions: 0.61 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Nancy Folbre, a MacArthur Fellow, is professor emerita of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is the the author of The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values and Saving State U: Why We Must Fix Public Higher Education; a co-author, with Jonathan Teller-Elsberg, James Heintz, and the Center for Popular Economics, of Field Guide to the U.S. Economy; and a co-author, with Randy Albelda, of The War on the Poor: A Defense Manual, all published by The New Press. Her academic books include For Love and Money: Care Provision in the U.S. and Greed, Lust, and Gender: A History of Economic Ideas. She is a regular contributor to the New York Times’s Economix blog.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


If you 're lonely, I will call.
If you're poorly, I will send poetry.
I love you.
I am the milkman of human kindness.
I will leave an extra pint.

—Billy Bragg

Investors are fascinated by bulls, as in a "bull market" and "Merrill Lynch is bullish on America." Cows, sows, and nannies are associated with socialism, as in "everyone wants to milk the common cow," or "sucking on the government teat." Margaret Thatcher taught a whole generation of politicians to deride the "nanny state." Ditto Rush Limbaugh, who suggested we replace the eagle, our current national symbol, with a "huge sow that has a lot of nipples and a bunch of fat little piglets hanging on them, all trying to suckle as much nourishment from them as possible." The implication seems to be that real men don't drink milk and shouldn't offer any to other people.

    In our culture, milk often serves as a metaphor for kindness, and motherhood embodies both. Partly as a result, our ideals of love and care for others have often been defined differently for women and men. When I graduated from high school in 1969, I was warned not to seem too smart or too ambitious. Some family friends capped this advice with a quotation from Shakespeare: "Be good, sweet girl, and let those who will be clever." I remember my mother giving me a big wink. As someone who had reconciled herself to goodness, she secretly urged me on to mischief. Over time, I've seen discomfort aboutfemale accomplishments diminish. Norms of appropriate behavior for women have changed.

    In a 1977 poll, about two-thirds of the Americans surveyed agreed that "It is much better for everyone if the man is the achiever and the woman takes care of the home and family." By 1998, only one-third agreed: the proportions had reversed. Women are now far more likely to work outside the home than they were twenty-five years ago. Partly as a result, they are less bound by family obligations, with more permission—indeed, encouragement—to pursue their own interests. Men's work hasn't changed nearly as much. The amount of time they devote to housework and child care has increased by a negligible amount.

    This chapter explores the connections between masculinity, femininity, self-interest, and care for others. In the United States today, men and women have equal rights before the law. With respect to the care of children and other dependents, however, our cultural norms still reflect greater expectations for women than for men. Economic theory offers vivid examples of this cultural double standard. The history of feminism reflects a sustained effort to challenge it.

    Liberal feminism has demanded greater individual rights for women. Social feminism has demanded greater social obligations, especially for men. For reasons that have to do with our economic system, as well as our political history, liberal feminism has enjoyed relatively more success in the United States than in the more traditional societies of Europe. Its very success has contributed to a dilemma. Women know they can benefit economically by becoming achievers rather than caregivers. They also, know, however, that if all women adopt this strategy, society as a whole will become oriented more toward achievement than care.

* * *

Most advice books for men concern money and sex and say virtually nothing about caring for their elderly parents or small children. Books for women, such as Helen Gurley Brown's Having It All or Sonya Freeman's Smart Cookies Don't Crumble, now also glamorize a life for women that is relatively free of the burden of care.
—Arlie Hochschild
"Ideals of Love" in Karen V. Hansen and Anita Corey, eds., Families in the U.S.: Kinship and Domestic Politics

* * *

Coercion and Care

It is often assumed that women are naturally more altruistic than men, especially toward their own offspring. Biologists borrow an economic concept, pointing out that mothers have a greater biological "investment" in children than fathers do, since they carry the fetus within their body and nourish the infant with milk from their breasts. Maternal love, however, has always had limits. The varied circumstances in which we have evolved have forced mothers to make hard choices, to evaluate the effect that one child might have on another child's—and on her own—chances of survival.

    Any time that costs and benefits are taken into account, outcomes hinge on who pays the costs and who enjoys the benefits. Precisely because mothers pay a disproportionate share of the costs, fathers often worry less than mothers about the prospect of too many offspring. Furthermore, the more that women specialize in child rearing, the more dependent they become on adult men for assistance. As a result, fathers generally acquire power along with the responsibility for caring for their families. The biological division of labor sets the stage for an array of social and cultural forms of control over women, some of which may give patriarchal societies an edge over more egalitarian societies.

    Conservative social thinkers, including many economists, insist that women are naturally suited to child care, and that this, in turn, gives them a comparative advantage in providing care to others, including the sick and elderly. Specialization, after all, increases efficiency. But specialization also affects the development of human capabilities and the exercise of bargaining power. In the short run, it may be efficient for one country to specialize in producing sugar and bananas while another country specializes in producing computers and guns. In the long run, however, the country that specializes in producing sugar and bananas is unlikely to be able to defend its own borders or develop its own technology. The same may be said of a person who specializes in rearing children and taking care of other dependents.

    Historical scholarship details the many laws that gave fathers and husbands property rights over daughters and wives, enforced male control over female wealth and income, restricted women's access to education and systematically excluded them from access to lucrative jobs. It is difficult to explain why such coercive rules evolved, if not because of some big differences between what men wanted women to do and what women would have chosen on their own. A nineteenth-century Prussian law actually gave husbands the right to determine how long their wives should breast-feed their infants.

    In some areas of the world, women's relative position has improved over the last two centuries. Economic development and technological change have increased the importance of brains—including women's brains—relative to brawn. Equally important has been the decline in fertility and the shift of focus from the quantity of children to the quality of their upbringing. Looking back, it seems pretty clear that traditional patriarchal rules did more than increase women's specialization in child rearing. They also increased women's specialization in the provision of other kinds of care services. Economic dependence made women's welfare contingent on the welfare of their fathers and husbands—a powerful incentive to pay attention to other people's needs. Those who are denied a cultural conception of themselves as individuals may not even think of themselves as separate persons.

    Many systematic forms of violence seem designed to decrease women's ability to perform directly productive work. Foot-binding in ancient China made it difficult for women to walk. Strict rules of exclusion, such as purdah in many Islamic countries, limit women's opportunity to earn a market income. Genital mutilation, still practiced in many areas of Africa, poses serious risks to women's health. Domestic violence, still rife in many areas of Europe and the United States, makes it more difficult for a wife or mother to get dinner on the table and children off to school. All these practices lower productivity and enforce subordination, encouraging women to put others' needs above their own.

    Of course, you can't force somebody to love you. Subordination doesn't always lead to high quality care. It can create tension, resentment, even fury. Greek mythology tells of Medea, so angered by her husband Jason's betrayal that she murdered their two sons and served them up for dinner. Less extreme threats have often given women informal power. We value love most when it is freely given. People who have a voice in defining their commitments to other people probably fulfill those commitments more gracefully. Allowing women new choices improves the quality of care and, in this respect, everybody benefits.

    But choice is a funny thing, affected by both moral values and by social pressures. Often what we choose depends on what we think other people will choose. It's harder to stay honest if we see other people cheating. It's harder to engage in teamwork if other team members are shirking. It's harder to take on responsibilities for the care of other people if those responsibilities don't seem to be shared. This is why too much choice—or too little social coordination of choice—can lead to outcomes that can be just as problematic as having no choice at all.

Work versus Care

In the seventeenth century, a number of English political theorists began to argue that men should govern themselves rather than automatically accept the authority of a king. They also laid the conceptual foundation for an economy based on contract rather than coercion. John Locke emphasized two basic economic principles. First, a man should have ownership of himself; no one else should have dominion over him. Second, a man should be allowed to claim the products of his own labor, thus guaranteeing incentives for him to work hard and well.

    None of these principles were initially extended to anyone except adult male citizens. The notion that women should have a right to vote was thought preposterous. The idea that they should have control over their own decisions was also ruled out. Fathers had authority over daughters until they married. Once married, women were required to obey their husbands. Women exercised some choice over whom they would marry but a decision not to marry at all was impractical, given the restrictions on their access to education or well-paid work. As to the right of control over the products of their own labor—the main product of women's labor was children, and female control over grown sons would have violated men's presumed right to self-determination.

    In retrospect, this double standard seems as outrageous as it is inconsistent. At the time, however, it was justified by the claim that women's activities—primarily, caring for children and other dependents—did not amount to real work. Unlike men's activities, they did not involve the rational calculation of costs and benefits or responses to economic incentives. Rather, what women did was both instinctive and moral, performed for natural and God-given reasons. Women who declined to accept this responsibility were treated as unnatural and wicked.

    Although such views were widely held, they were by no means universal. Early critics of the double standard pointed out that women seemed to be penalized, rather than rewarded, for assuming the responsibilities of motherhood. Mary Astell, a largely self-educated merchant's daughter who eked out a living for herself as a writer, issued in 1694 a salvo entitled A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest. Astell played famously upon the inconsistencies of John Locke's theory, pointing out that it was a bit difficult to understand how, if kings had no God-given authority over their subjects, men could claim God-given authority over their wives.

    She complained that men seemed to consider the nursing of children as low and despicable even though no activity deserved more honor, or greater thanks and rewards. Astell located the source of women's subordination in their responsibilities for care: "Such the generous offices we do them: Such the ungenerous returns they make us." About a hundred years later, Mary Wollstonecraft would pick up the argument in A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Few people realize that feminism as an intellectual tradition reaches to the beginnings of liberal political theory. It may not have received much attention or respect at the time, but it was present, foreshadowing things to come.

Adam, But Not Eve

As the scope for individual choice expanded, philosophers began to argue that selfishness served the greater good. Adam Smith is best known to us for offering, in The Wealth of Nations, the first systematic explanation of "trickle-down" theory. Encouraging men to pursue their own self-interest would, Smith argued, promote economic growth that would benefit everyone, and provide for those in need. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner," he wrote, "but from regard to their self-interest."

    Just a minute. It is not usually the butcher, the brewer, or the baker who fixes dinner, but his wife or mother. Does she act out of self-interest too? Smith would have been horrified by the very idea. Self-interest was appropriate only to the impersonal world of the market. The moral sentiments, he believed, were firmly rooted in the family and the home. Smith considered all forms of labor that provided services to other people to be unproductive (though certainly not unimportant).

    Thomas Robert Malthus was even less interested in the work that went into rearing the next generation and far more worried about the possibility of overpopulation. Like Smith, he was a great believer in the redemptive power of self-interest. Indeed, he went beyond Smith to argue that benevolence and charity toward others could have destructive effects. Specifically, he maintained that provision of public assistance to poor people would make them worse off, because this would prompt them to marry earlier and have—God help us all—more children. In the long run, the resulting increase in the supply of labor would push wages down and make poor families worse off. Men, he argued, should pursue their self-interest by delaying marriage.

    But, Malthus argued, any effort to avoid births by using "the improper arts" would be unnatural and immoral. His injunctions against birth control applied nominally to both men and women but whether married or unmarried, men of Malthus's day had recourse to prostitutes and therefore a means of separating sex from reproduction. And women, of course (whether prostitutes or not), were left with the responsibility for children if they became pregnant out of wedlock. The sexual double standard both reflected and reinforced the line drawn between the male world of self-interest and the female world of responsibility for care.

    Some of Malthus's contemporaries bravely risked public censure by advocating birth control. But those who advocated forms of contraception that women could use, such as the vaginal sponge, faced particularly strong prosecution. At the age of seventeen, John Stuart Mill was arrested for handing out handbills on this subject. Later, inspired by the convictions of his deceased wife, Harriet Taylor, Mill wrote the most famous feminist tract of the nineteenth century, "On the Subjection of Women." In it, he argued not only that women were being deprived of equal rights, but also that they were being forced to assume disproportionate moral and economic responsibility for care:

If women are better than men in anything, it surely is in individual self-sacrifice for those of their own family. But I lay little stress on this, so long as they are universally taught that they are born and created for self-sacrifice. I believe that equality of rights would abate the exaggerated self-abnegation which is the present artificial ideal of feminine character, and that a good woman would not be more self-sacrificing than the best man: but on the other hand, men would be much more unselfish and self-sacrificing than at present, because they would no longer be taught to worship their own will as such a grand thing that it is actually the law for another rational being.

    Mill was naive to think that such a transformation would automatically ensue; it never occurred to him that overall levels of self-sacrifice might decline. But he clearly recognized the links between gender, subordination, and restrictions on self-interest. Though he failed to convince his contemporaries that women should be given equal rights, he laid a strong foundation for later, more successful efforts. And he certainly encouraged many women to be clever as well as good.

Separate Spheres

In my family, the men took charge of making money while the women figured out ways to give it away. I remember my mother, a restless housewife, taking on sizable responsibilities for the local Junior League, the United Fund, and the Girl Scouts. She died of cancer when I was eighteen, and my father remarried about a year later. My second mom was a high-powered businesswoman who helped start a small manufacturing firm, but lost interest once it was bought out by a multinational corporation. She then turned her attention and her energy to running a local San Antonio philanthropy.

    The family that my father worked for had a similar division of labor. Mr. Mac's aunt, Leta McFarlin Chapman, grew up in a small Texas town named Pecan Grove where she attended school with a number of Native Americans. She always claimed that the experience had given her a lifelong concern for minority groups and underprivileged people in general. Over her lifetime, she gave well over a hundred million dollars to churches, colleges, and hospitals—far exceeding her nephew's generosity.

    The notion that women should be more altruistic than men has a long history. In the nineteenth century, it became a virtual obsession. The growth of capitalism increased the scope of impersonal exchange, particularly the sale of labor power to strangers in return for wages. This process created enormous apprehensions. Would society become so atomistic, so competitive, so individualistic that it would fall apart? Conservatives like Edmund Burke urged a return to feudal principles of respect for royal and paternal authority. Socialists like Robert Owen began to imagine new forms of social organization based on the family writ large, in which men and women would work together as brothers and sisters.

    A more common response to apprehension about the growth of markets was the romanticization of family life. By devoting themselves to their husbands and children, women could hold civilization together. In both Britain and the United States, a burgeoning literature of domesticity explained how women could become angels of the home. No one painted a more panoramic view of this process than Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose 1869 book The American Woman's Home became so popular that it remained a textbook for my own grandmother's generation.


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Table of Contents

I The Economics of Care
1 The Milk of Human Kindness 3
2 The Care Penalty 22
3 Measuring Success 53
II Good Government
4 The Nanny State 83
5 Children as Pets 109
6 Robin Hood School 136
7 The Golden Eggs 159
III Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
8 CorporNation 185
9 Dancing in the Dark 209
Notes 233
Index 257
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