03/30/2016 07:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Realities Missing from Political Debates

Politics and entertainment used to reside in separate spheres. But in this year's Presidential campaign coverage, they've converged. While this has driven up TV ratings and network incomes, it's been a dangerous pastime for a country already behind in the things that matter.

In the heated exchange of taunts and putdowns, even the questions to candidates have ignored one of the most serious threats to US economic competitiveness: our nation's failure to invest in our children -- our future human capital. The people who want to lead this country have to start talking about this as a key economic issue. We cannot hope to lead on the world stage when we are squandering the ability of our population and hobbling our future by neglecting our children here at home.


Children can only grow to be productive workers, tax-paying citizens, and fully functional human beings if provided high-quality care by parents and other caregivers long before they start kindergarten.

But where in the presidential debates is there any mention of this neglect of our nation's most important asset: our children? With all the talk about increasing jobs, how can that be done without making child care accessible and affordable? Without paid family leave and earned sick time as minimum labor requirements, how can parents build careers and financial security? With the cost of medical care outpacing wages, how do people take care of their aging parents?

These questions face every family and confront every voter. These are the issues our leaders will have to navigate. Yet they get nary a mention in the free-for-all slugfests and verbal pyrotechnics that pass for proof of political leadership on TV.

Another vital matter ignored is that our failure to support care for children, the elderly, and others in need is a major cause of our country's huge economic inequalities - higher than any other wealthy nation. The fact is that what swells these economic disparities is the disproportionate poverty of women and children, which in turn is directly related to the failure of US policies to support the care work primarily performed by women for below-par wages in the market and for free in households.

Women in the US, responsible for the bulk of our economic expansion in the past half century according to Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, remain burdened by the amount of unpaid care work they perform. Sidelined by a work culture with no flexibility for birth or family care, they unsuccessfully struggle for parity in positions of leadership and authority.

GDP, the economic measure we hear about all the time, also pays no attention to these critical matters. This is why policymakers need new metrics: Social Wealth Economic Indicators (SWEIs). SWEIs show that other countries have taken steps to fully leverage their workforce and invest in the next generation, while the US has not, and that these countries have much lower poverty rates. SWEIs also show something else ignored in our current political conversation: the importance of the status of women.

If you want to know how strong a country is, how vibrant its economy and how robust its democracy, don't look at GDP. Look at Social Wealth Economic Indicators.

Americans need to know that, at odds with every other modern economy, the US has no nationally guaranteed paid time off for new parents. Our exploding aging population pulls workers, mostly women, out of the workforce, in whole or in part, to look after their parents or in-laws. The value of family care provided to elders or family members with disabilities would be $470 billion if purchased at market rates or added to the tab of public health costs. In the UK, (whose population is 1/5 of that of the US) the value of all the unpaid childcare performed in 2010 amounts to $343 billion, or three times the contribution of that country's financial services industry. Recent estimates in the US put that figure in the trillions of dollars. But even that doesn't begin to quantify the cost to the caregivers themselves, or their families and communities.

When women are as successful as men in politics and business, when men share in family care and unpaid work, research shows that the standard of living is higher for everybody, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, or educational level. Yet in the US, women don't have parity in business, government, or academia, and are clustered in lower paying job sectors, especially the work of care, which is so low paid that many care workers live in poverty and rely on public assistance to get by.

Instead of expanding opportunities for women and children to maximize their potential, our current policies are closing doors. All this puts a huge downward drag on the economy. If those who would lead us want the chance to do so, they need to lay aside the chest pounding and name-calling. It's time to talk about realities: the urgent economic need for removing barriers to women's advancement, investing now in our future workforce, and acknowledging that care is as important to voters as cash.

Riane Eisler, JD, is president of the Center for Partnership Studies (CPS) and author of The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics.

Valerie Young, JD, is Outreach Director for CPS's Caring Economy Campaign and blogs at Your (Wo)Man in Washington.