(MENAFN - Daily Outlook Afghanistan) Political economy has come a long way.Many figures and institutions that have long embraced neoliberalismincreasingly recognize the failures of markets and acknowledge that states mayhave a role to play in improving socioeconomic outcomes. Even the InternationalMonetary Fund now discusses the 'macro-criticality of social protection, theneed for progressive taxation, and, potentially, universal transfers.
But the conversation – which focusesalmost exclusively on coordination between state and market – remains toonarrow to produce effective solutions. For that, as a new report by UN Womenshows, social factors – especially the role of families and gender equality –must also be included.
These two factors are inextricably linked,with gender inequalities being heavily reinforced by family dynamics, in a waythat, say, racial inequalities are not. The problem is compounded by the factthat outdated assumptions about families and gender dynamics continue to shapesocial and economic policymaking.
As it stands, only about one-third of allhouseholds adhere to the 'ideal family structure (two parents with children)on which policies are typically based. Among the two-thirds that take adifferent form, a large share are extended households, which include, forexample, aunts, uncles, or grandparents. About a quarter of all households areeither single-parent or single-person.
Moreover, while marriage remains virtuallyuniversal in some parts of the world, it is becoming less common in others,with even long-term partners often choosing to cohabitate before or instead ofgetting married. In some countries in Latin America, Southern Africa, and Europe,up to three-quarters of women aged 25-29 who are in relationships arecohabiting with their partners.
All of this has important policyimplications. Given their greater longevity, women over 60 are twice as likelyas men of the same age group to be living on their own, often subsisting on ameager pension and/or little, if any, savings.
Furthermore, single-parent households –more than three-quarters of which are headed by single mothers – are, onaverage, twice as likely as dual-parent households to be living in poverty.Single parents often struggle to balance paid work with their careresponsibilities.
But even in dual-parent and higher-incomehouseholds, women face significant challenges in juggling paid work and unpaidcare work. Globally, women perform over 76% of unpaid caregiving, on average –more than three times as much as men.
This significantly reduces women's accessto independent income. Only about half of married or cohabiting women aged25-54 are in the labor force, compared to nearly all married or cohabiting men.And whereas the presence of young children in the household decreases women'semployment rates, it increases that of men.
An independent income strengthens women'sbargaining power, enables them to exit abusive relationships, and providessecurity in old age. Moreover, the share of women earning an independent incomeis inversely correlated to the share of households in poverty. As the Danishsociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen put it, 'The single most effective remedyagainst poverty is maternal employment.
To enhance women's economic autonomy, thefirst priority must be to invest in care systems, including early childhoodeducation and care (ECEC) . This is particularly urgent in developingcountries, where the gap between the supply of childcare services and demandfor such services is largest, owing to the relatively small childcareworkforce.
Beyond enabling women to pursue economicopportunities, quality, affordable childcare helps to fuel job creation (withinthe care sector) and build human capital (particularly among the children whobenefit from it). Given this – as well as the time commitment that paid workrepresents for all genders – such investment is needed even if unpaid work ismore equally shared within households.
A second key priority must be to delivercomprehensive social protections, including paid leave – which enables parentsto care for children without becoming disconnected from the labor market – andincome support. Family benefits, such as childcare allowances, mitigate theheightened risk of poverty that accompanies childrearing. Single parents shouldreceive additional support.
Meanwhile, universal pensions can supportwomen – who are likely to have fewer savings and assets than men, but livelonger – in old age. The establishment of accessible long-term care servicesand reform of marital-property regimes would also help. Finally, to protectwomen's rights to joint assets, social benefits, and child custody, family lawsand social policies must recognize cohabitation, rather than just marriage.
By designing a policy package around theneeds of contemporary families, political leaders can promote women's rights,children's development, and employment. The same policies would therefore be aboon to economic dynamism and poverty reduction.