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October 8, 2008

Social Capital and the Core Economy

The concept of `social capital` is increasingly understood – and the term is increasingly used to describe the health or otherwise of our communities. It has strong similarities to the concept of the `Core Economy` advance by American Professor, Edgar Cahn

Edgar Cahn

The primary focus of the Manifesto for co-production has understandably been concerned with enlisting people as co-producers of public services such as those provided by the National Health Service (NHS). Coming from England where statutory rights to effective service are extensive, that is an appropriate focus and co-production provides the appropriate framework for system change.

But coming from the United States, a country that does not guarantee such rights and that has instead embraced a kind of market theology, the value of co-production as a framework for system change shifts to another level. For me, it becomes important to point out that co-production entails a second, more fundamental partnership – a partnership between the monetary economy (comprised of public, private and nonprofit sectors) and the core economy of home, family, neighbourhood, community and civil society.

The perspective from the States thus emphasises a different and overriding purpose to co-production: creating a new core economy which no longer can rely upon invisible labour exacted from the subordination of women and the exploitation of ethnic minorities and illegal immigrants. When focused on co-production, the prism supplied by a lens of social justice highlights the varied hues of racism and sexism that have historically undermined efforts in the United States to address economic disparity.

My development of the concept of co-production stems directly from examining the core principles underlying timebanking. And my development of timebanking stemmed from an appreciation of the limitations of government efforts to empower people for whom the market had no use and who did not enjoy the same rights to subsistence or to care that are a birthright in England. This commentary reflects the journey that led me to articulate co-production as a fundamental framework for public and charitable initiatives.

That journey began with my involvement in the civil rights movement, my cofounding of the National Legal Services programme, my work in the War on Poverty and my subsequent efforts to address disparities which seemed destined to persist and to grow, so long as those who were disenfranchised were viewed, at best, as objects of pity and charity. The challenge was: how to value the labour and contribution of those whom the market excluded or devalued and whose genuine work was not acknowledged or rewarded.

“The value of household work in 1998 was estimated to total US $1.911 trillion – about one quarter of the size of the US gros domestic product that year.” 1

First comes a rejection that money and market price is the sole acceptable measure of value. Timebanking rejects price, valuing all hours equally, because price equates value with scarcity relative to demand. Timebanking values what it means to be truly human and to contribute to each other as humans – as members of the human family. Those are the universals that enabled our species to survive and evolve: our willingness to come to each other’s rescue, to care for each other, to stand up for what we believe is right. There are domains we all recognise are beyond price: family and loved ones, justice, patriotism, spirituality, the environment. We cannot allow a rejection of market price to mean a denial of economic value.

From that, it follows that co-production need not and cannot be limited to the labour wanted by professionals to make their human service delivery systems work better.

If co-production focuses exclusively on the types of labour needed to enable public systems work better, it will tend to undervalue the significance of the effort invested in giving love and comfort, approval and disapproval, caring and mentoring – and equally the effort involved in civic engagement ranging from attending meetings to making phone calls to mobilising social protest. And it will tend to overlook the contribution that co-production can play in redefining the labour force needed to rebuild community and reclaim habitat for our species – a labour force that must include children, teenagers, persons on public assistance, the disabled, the elderly and even the bed-ridden and housebound. Because timebank initiatives have consistently valued the hours expended by all making such a wide variety of contributions, it broadened my understanding of the labour force and the types of labour that Coproduction would entail.

Third, timebanking has illuminated and heightened our awareness of the scale and magnitude of a critical portion of the non-market economy – the core economy. It is a genuine economic system of vast magnitude. Appreciation of that goes back before my work – to Hazel Henderson and the love economy; to Neva Goodwin who coined the term, the core economy. Marilyn Waring tried to wake us all up to that in her book:

If women counted. The women’s movement and more recently, Nancy Folbre, have stressed the significance of caring work. Alvin Tofler reminds us of the obvious in his question to Fortune 500 executives: “How productive would your work force be if they were not toilet trained?” Different efforts to quantify the value of productive labour not reflected in monetary indices vary – but at a minimum they equal or exceed at least 40 per cent of the GDP. A calculation made in 2002 of the scale of unpaid labour in the United States that keeps seniors out of nursing homes topped $250 billion dollars – six times what is spent on the market for equivalent services.

Robert Putnam has certainly tried to alert us to the decline of social capital. If social capital is critical to the well-being of society, then we must ask what its home base and source is. Social Capital is rooted in a social economy – and surely, the home base of that economy is the household, the neighbourhood, the community and civil society.

That is the economy that co-production seems to rebuild and to reconstruct.
The extent to which that core economy has been eroded came home to me personally when we looked at 786 young people who had committed some offence and been sent to the Time Dollar Youth Court. Only 14 of them were being raised in a two-parent household.

Co-production is more than making social programs work. We see entire neighbourhoods depopulated in the States: a majority of young African American males are in prison; welfare reform sends the mothers elsewhere to work; and the neighbourhoods are populated by the gangs, the drug dealers, latchkey children, seniors – and a handful of neighbourhood workers sent in to regenerate the community from 9–5 on weekdays. Co-production involves reclaiming territory for the core economy – territory lost to the commodification of life by all sectors of the monetary economy, public, private and non-profit.

We will be unable to create the core economy of the future so long as we live in a bifurcated world where all social problems are relegated either to paid professionals or to volunteers whose role is typically restricted to functioning as free labour within the silos of the non-profit world.

It will take massive labour of all kinds by all to build the core economy of the future – an economy based on relationships and mutuality, on trust and engagement, on speaking and listening and caring – and above all on authentic respect. We will not get there simply by expanding an entitlement system which apportions public benefits based on negatives and deficiencies: what one lacks, what disability one has, what misfortune one has suffered.
We have to begin creating a new species of entitlements: earned entitlements that vest by virtue of how one contributes to rebuilding the core economy. That is the new path we must blaze through co-production if co-production is going to transcend professionally defined domains of problems and rebuild an organic world of community that reunites the human family. Timebanking supplies a tool and a medium of exchange to help do that.

Finally, because timebanking and co-production grow out of my own life and work in the civil rights movement, I have to add that hell-raising is a critical part of coproduction and of the labour that it entails and must value. Those with wealth, power, authority and credentials hold those assets as stewards for those who came before and in trust for those yet unborn. They must be held accountable – and sometimes that requires the creation of new vehicles that give rise to scrutiny, to questioning, to criticism, and to social protest. Timebank programmes can create those vehicles in ways that enlist the community – and that tap the knowledge that the community has about what is working and what is not working.

In Washington DC, 13 teenagers who had served as jurors on our teen court dealing with delinquency were organised as a Youth Grand Jury to investigate what the city was and was not doing about teenagers and substance abuse. The Youth Grand Jury undertook a six-month investigation. In a report titled, Speaking truth to power, the Youth Grand Jury indicted the mayor, the drug agency and the District government for failure to fund any prevention or treatment programs for youth. It recommended specific roles for young people as co-producers of a more adequate system of prevention and treatment for substance abuse including training and certification of teenagers as drug peer counsellors. To make it cool to be drug free they called for the creation of a drug-free club where dues were paid in Time Dollars earned doing community service and where membership carried rewards.

I add this only by way of illustration of the more fundamental point: democracy itself requires co-production in order to work if the people are to exercise their theoretical sovereignty. Native Americans have a saying: ‘We did not inherit this land from our ancestors; we borrowed it from our descendants.’ Co-production embraces the exercise of that stewardship.

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