The Care Economy in Post-Reform China: Feminist Research on Unpaid and Paid Work and Well-Being Feminist Economics

Feminist Economics

Rachel Connelly, Xiao-yuan Dong, Joyce Jacobsen, and Yaohui Zhao

Rachel Connelly, Xiao-yuan Dong, Joyce Jacobsen, and Yaohui Zhao provide an overview and examination of the transformation of the care economy in post-1978 reform China and its implications for the welfare, employment, and incomes of Chinese women and men, and the well-being of their families. Further, they document the policy changes in the areas of paid maternity leave, childcare, and eldercare provisions, and their impact on the way in which care needs, particularly of the disadvantaged, are addressed.

Main findings. Connelly, Dong, Jacobsen, and Zhao find that the gendered, household-centered care arrangements that have emerged in the post-reform period cannot properly address the care needs of the disadvantaged. In addition, the state’s retreat from the sphere of reproduction in the post-reform period has increased the care burden on women, hampering their ability to participate equally in the new market economy.

With the expansion of private/informal sectors, access to paid maternity leave among employed urban mothers without a college education has become more limited, and this change has a strong negative effect on these mothers’ ability to sustain breastfeeding. With regard to childcare policy (or the lack thereof), as the supply of publicly subsidized formal childcare services has dwindled, families increasingly rely on commercialized childcare programs and grandparent-provided childcare to meet their needs. In urban areas, accessing affordable childcare services has become a major challenge for low-income families, especially for migrant families who are more likely now to be bringing their children with them than they were ten years ago. In rural areas, daycare and preschool programs are largely unavailable in low-income and remote villages. Analysis of eldercare indicates that the family-centered traditional eldercare regime remains the mainstay and that care arrangements within the family are gendered, making elderly women more vulnerable than elderly men to the risk of having their care needs unaddressed.

Many of the observed trends have either exacerbated or continued women’s gender gaps in various measures of well being relative to men. Childcare responsibilities generally hinder rural women’s participation in better-paying off-farm employment and urban women’s labor force participation. In cases where grandparents are involved in childcare, having young children does not represent as binding a constraint on mothers’ employment. But caring for grandchildren entails appreciable economic costs for grandparents, particularly grandmothers, because it adversely affects their employment and earnings. Middle-aged women and men not only help adult children with childcare, but also bear the responsibility for taking care of elderly parents. Urban women workers work more hours in total than their men counterparts and are therefore more likely to be time poor. Women’s longer total work hours and higher time poverty rate are significantly correlated with the gender gap in mental health. Women’s pensions are substantially lower than men’s and much of the gender pension gap can be explained by gender differences in employment and earnings, for which women’s unpaid caregiving responsibilities are an important driving force.

Policy implications. Based on the empirical findings discussed in the essay, Connelly, Dong, Jacobsen, and Zhao make the following specific policy recommendations: 1) Integrate care needs and gender equality into the broader Chinese development agenda and address care provision issues through the mainstream policymaking process; 2) Increase the role of the state in providing and financing care, including paid maternity leave, expanding childcare, and developing more eldercare, with greater attention paid throughout to the needs of disadvantaged population segments; 3) Expand the role of both the market and community or other organizations in care provision, in particular, lower entry barriers and allow the private sector to provide care to children under three years of age; 4) Further accommodate care duties in the workplace and enforce existing regulations regarding women’s employment and reproductive rights; 5) Increase support for transformation of gender roles and norms and encourage more equitable sharing of care responsibilities within the household.

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