Taking Stock in Our Children: In a Time of Volatile Markets, How We Can Play the 'Long Game' by Investing in Our Society's Future

09/08/2015 10:15 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2016

By Riane Eisler and Valerie Young

When world markets convulse, people tend to think short term. But as a society, we must start focusing on what investors call the "long game" -- re-examining our economic priorities to improve and stabilize more lives over time.

Continuing to behave as we have will only prolong economic instability and the growing gap between haves and have-nots. Our skyrocketing child poverty, incarceration, and income inequality rates are not inevitable or irreversible. They are the result of policy failures, and policies can be changed -- once we re-examine and change how we think and operate.

Suppose that instead of thinking only of stock markets or interest rates, we ask what kind of economic policies and practices are good for children. What helps, or prevents, children from realizing their potentials? What makes it possible for them to be healthy, get an education, and become responsible and productive adults?

What do these child-rearing issues have to do with economics? As it turns out, everything. In our knowledge/information era, the most important capital is what economists call "high-quality human capital" -- and we know from neuroscience that this mainly hinges on the quality of early care and education children receive.

Yet the recent report, Social Wealth Economic Indicators: A New System for Evaluating Economic Prosperity, shows that our nation invests less in our children -- by far -- than other developed nations. We must change this, and a first step is using new economic measures. Social Wealth Economic Indicators (SWEIs) demonstrate the enormous economic contribution of the work of caring for people, starting in early childhood. These new metrics are already in use by national organizations such as the women's economic security advocates at 9to5 to promote policies such as funding for parental and sick leave, child care, and higher pay for careworkers.

SWEIs show that the devaluation of this "women's work" -- which now more men are also undertaking, as family roles shift -- causes untold suffering and is a big reason for the disproportionate poverty of children, women, and communities of color. It is also a major obstacle to our nation's future economic success.

Picture your neighbor caring for a young child while also looking after an aging parent. Think of the parents juggling a job with their family's needs. Think of the workers, mostly women of color and immigrants, toiling long hours for less than a living wage in home, eldercare, and childcare. Visualize the children whose caregivers cannot provide them basics such as healthy food, medical care, books, and above all, the time and attention vital for human capacity development. Then, go back to what economists tell us: that the key to a robust economy in our new knowledge/service age is "high quality human capital."

SWEIs reveal that our country has the lowest public funding for early childhood education and care of any other advanced nation. They also show that the U.S. is the only nation without nationally-funded paid parental leave, and has lower educational enrollment and scores. SWEIs further show we have a higher rate of income inequality, and the highest child poverty rates -- and that these rates are astronomical for communities of color.

So, at a time when children of color will soon be the majority of US children, our failure to invest in care not only causes enormous suffering and inequity; it is economically self-destructive. Not only that, a more equitable and caring economy is essential for real democracy. To quote from the Social Wealth Economic Indicators report, "In countries where the rich own a growing share of income and wealth, the political process is inevitably captured by their interests, and the poor become objects of disenfranchisement and therefore discrimination. Social mistrust then grows and political and civil disorder become increasingly likely."

Our headlines are filled with examples of exactly this "political and civil disorder" both within and without the U.S. It stands to reason that outcomes can only be better if the inputs are better too. Provided with these connections by Social Wealth Economic Indicators, policy makers can see that greater public investment in pre-school education, support for care work in homes, and better wages for caregivers will decrease economic disparity while preparing the U.S. for the economic "long game."

SWEIs provide data on both inputs (Care Investment Indicators) and outputs (Human Capacity Indicators, and when we see both, the route from Point A to Point B emerges. These connections between inputs and outputs are the stepping-stones we can use to reach solid ground. From that ground, we can build a structural foundation to support practices and policies that much more effectively address seemingly insoluble problems such as economic instability and inequality -- and pave the way for the future we need and want.

Riane Eisler is author of The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics and President of the Center for Partnership Studies (CPS).
Valerie Young is a public policy analyst and advocate for women's economic security. She is Director of Outreach for CPS's Caring Economy Campaign.