Nancy Folbre, an economist at UMass Amherst who specializes in feminist economics, has a post at Economix that discusses the lack of home productio in GDP statistics in light of the economic crisis.
Home construction is way down in the United States, but home production — work to produce goods and services for own consumption — is way up. As people forgo expensive restaurant meals, they spend more time cooking at home. A Time Magazine poll reports that individuals are doing more housework and home repairs. Many Americans, famously including Michelle Obama, are planting vegetable gardens. Even some urbanites are raising chickens in their backyards.
The issue becomes most poignant when doing cross-country comparisons:
Average time devoted to home production in the United States is lower than in many other countries partly because female participation in paid employment is particularly high here. As a result, estimates of gross domestic product, based on market transactions, overstate our relative well-being. Research by economists Rick Freeman and Ronald Schettkatt, for instance, shows that the value of mothers’ unpaid work in Germany is even greater than it is here. Adding an estimate of the market value of this work to G.D.P. in both countries would increase measures of German living standards more than ours.
Household dynamics may change as a result of the recession, but GDP could miss it entirely:
Men in the United States have increased the average amount of time they devote to housework and child care since 1975. Unemployed husbands who depend on their wives’ paychecks have incentives to develop their skills in this department. They seem rather reluctant to do so.
But that may change as bouts of unemployment grow longer, as they have during the current recession. When data from the 2008 and 2009 American Time Use Surveys become available, it should be possible to estimate the amount and value of increased unpaid work by both women and men. In hard times, even a few dollars a day can make a difference.
Sometimes I debate whether GDP is a good enough measure to be worth fixing. However, so long as it remains the primary indicator of economic well-being, I would obviously prefer that it be as holistic as possible. Of course, we then get into the throny issues of how to value household production. In any case, it could be that the recession provides incentives to reevaluate our economic statistics.