The value of caring

Britain’s Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has called upon people to take more responsibility for their own health. He has also called for a new approach to the way that elderly people are cared for.

The economic arguments are persuasive. Hunt states that smoking-related illnesses costs the NHS an estimated £2.7 billion a year. Type 2 diabetes – closely associated with being overweight – affects one in 16 of the adult population and costs the NHS £8 billion a year. Meanwhile, one in five children are leaving primary school clinically obese.

In the case of the elderly, Hunt rightly notes that the task of caring is not getting any smaller. “By the end of this parliament,” he says, “we will have a million more over 70s, one third of them living alone.” He points to the “heroic army” of family carers and volunteers, before observing that caring for elderly family members will have to become as central to people’s lives as looking after their children.

The irony of this latter point is that government policy is reducing the amount of time people spend looking after their children. Political parties outbid each other for the amount of free and subsidised childcare that they offer, to allow parents to work longer hours.

Governments measure their economic success by the amount of paid work that people do, because only paid work contributes to Gross National Product. Encouraging (or even forcing) people into paid work, then paying other people to look after their children, creates a double dose of GDP, to which can be added the petrol or bus fares that get people to where they need to be.

Mr Hunt’s ideas run counter to this policy, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t right. Care in the family is often the best thing for elderly people, provided it doesn’t just add to the stress of the carers’ lives. To avoid this, the work must be properly valued and accounted for, rather that being piled on top of everything else that people have to do.

In searching for policies to make this possible, the government need look no further that a simple statistical adjustment, to incorporate the valuable work of unpaid caring in the national measure of GDP. This change would redirect political and social energy towards creating increased opportunities for this important and productive activity.

And on the same principle, if GDP could be adjusted further to incorporate a measure of human health, then enabling people to take the time off that they need to reduce the stress in the lives, which is a major cause of both smoking and obesity, would also start to pay its way in economic terms.

If we want to live healthier, happier, less lonely lives, then it makes sense to measure the economic value of the things that contribute to that – not just the transactions in which money changes hands. If you agree, why not join the campaign.

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