Forum Institutional

New economic measures are needed to avoid collapse of families during pandemic 

A woman wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) walks past a graffiti in homage to the medical staff, at the San Martin hospital, in La Plata, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina January 21, 2021.

Families in Argentina provided 96 million hours of unpaid care work (about 16% of GDP) in 2019. Image: REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian.

Vanesa D'Alessandre
Associate Researcher of Education and Social Protection, CIPPEC (Centre for the Implementation of Public Policies for Equity and Growth)
Florencia Caro Sachetti
Global Shaper, Madrid Hub, CIPPEC (Centre for the Implementation of Public Policies for Equity and Growth)
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This article is part of: The Jobs Reset Summit

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  • Around the world many families have suffered through the COVID-19 crisis, particularly those with caregiving responsibilities.
  • Data indicates that Argentina's GDP dropped by 9.9% in 2020, but that does not factor in the costs of unpaid care.
  • The 'basic care basket' aims to measure this undervalued domestic work and the contribution it makes to society as a whole.

The national authorities decreed compulsory social isolation in Argentina in March 2020. At the time, Agustina and Gastón – parents of three-year-old Isabel – owed two months' rent. When the owner of the clothing shop where Agustina worked told her a few months later that he was closing down, she was not surprised. In the last month, her sister and brother-in-law have both lost their jobs. Gastón had not been able to drive his taxi for some time. Agustina thought about looking for a new job, but she soon gave up. Opportunities were scarce, and she had no one to look after Isabel. Her mother is an at-risk patient, and Isabel’s daycare remained closed. COVID-19 reduced the family income to zero.

To make ends meet, they sold some furniture, Isabel's cot and various household appliances. With the money from these sales, they could buy food every day and pay for essential services. They were also helped by the Asignación Universal por Hijo (Universal Child Allowance) and the Ingreso Familiar de Emergencia (Emergency Family Income) – cash transfers from the Argentine state for low-income families. Isabel's grandparents helped them pay the rent. Still, it is not enough. A few days ago, they received a notice to settle their health coverage. They both know that this is a debt they will not be able to pay off.

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The basic care basket

This Argentinian family's situation is replicated across the globe. In this pandemic, most governments focused on avoiding a healthcare system collapse. Measures were based on restricting human circulation to prevent contagion from crossing healthcare system's manageable threshold. The flip side of this strategy was the familiarisation of all spheres of life. The volume of resources that families like Agustina, Gastón and Isabel's need to take care of themselves increased worldwide while their strategies for accessing them were dismantled.

We now have concepts and indicators to estimate the pandemic’s pressure on healthcare systems and to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. Information about the number of infections, the R-value, the virus’ fatality rate and the bed occupancy in intensive care flood the media. However, there are still no adequate indicators to estimate (and alleviate) the pressure these measures put on families.

Taking on caregiving responsibilities reduces the hours available to families to earn money.

Vanesa D’Alessandre and Florencia Caro Sachetti.

The basic care basket aims to fill this gap – it is a synthetic indicator. It establishes the resource threshold where families' production of quality care becomes unviable. Thus, this measure could encourage governments to invest in care and avoid the collapse of those who produce and provide it.

The concept builds on a simple idea. Care is an immaterial and personalised product that meets a widespread social need: to care for populations who, for various circumstances, need the care of others to sustain their lives on a daily basis.

The central purpose of the basic care basket is to estimate the cost of producing this service for families comprised of people with some form of dependency:

• Children up to 12 years of age.

• People with disabilities or disabling illnesses.

• Older people with limited autonomy.

The first of these populations usually involves the most intensive stage of care production and the most significant volume of resources. School-age children consume goods and services. However, they are not expected to generate money, whereas self-reliant individuals potentially generate more money than the goods and services they consume.

At the same time, the presence of children in the household increases the time that families have to spend on unpaid domestic work. It also introduces new demands that, because of their status and/or the patterns of child-rearing that govern society, children cannot be expected to meet on their own. Consequently, childcare requires self-reliant adults to transfer some of their time and resources to children.


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Working for free

A large part of the hours that families spend on caregiving are given freely to society. In 2019 in Argentina, families provided 96 million hours of unpaid care work, representing about 16% of GDP (Figure 1 below (UCDW) Unpaid Care and Domestic Work). During the pandemic, estimates suggest that caregiving hours increased by 22%. Therefore, taking on caregiving responsibilities reduces the hours available to families to earn money.

Figure 1. Share of total GDP by economic sector. Argentina. 2019
Figure 1. Share of total GDP by economic sector in Argentina, 2019. Source: National Directorate of Economics, Equality and Gender, Ministry of Economics, Argentina.

However, in the process of care production, families combine unpaid work with other resources. They obtain them through money and their interactions with other productive units. A large part of the resources that families need for caregiving – food, shelter, housing, time – are bought with the income that they generally obtain from the labour market. Unpaid work and its interdependence with paid work remain hidden in traditional systems that measure economic activity. As a result, they reflect a distorted picture of the activities that enable social reproduction.

Statistics for 2020 indicate that Argentina's GDP dropped by 9.9%. It leads to interpretations of a slowdown in economic activity and production level. If we were to trace the lost working hours in the paid sector of the economy, we would find them among families. Particularly among women, who produce care with the leftovers of an economic system in crisis.

We need new tools to integrate the productive fabric that sustains life in adversity within the global economic system. To get out of this unprecedented crisis, we need families like Agustina, Gastón and Isabel's, and many others worldwide to maintain their activity levels. Governments must recognize their silent contribution to society and prevent their socioeconomic collapse. The basic basket of care can play a crucial role in tackling this challenge.


CIPPEC-Argentina is a member of the Southern Voice think tank network. The author is a member of the World Economic Forum Expert Network.

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