AMHERST, Mass. - Julie Graham, of the department of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, has received a $168,614 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how unpaid workers in western Massachusetts contribute to the economic well-being of their communities. Graham studies economic development on a regional scale. Although her project focuses on the Pioneer Valley, collaborators are conducting similar projects in Australia and other parts of the U.S., she said.
"When we talk about ‘the economy,’ most people assume that we’re talking about the paid labor and market transactions, and capitalist enterprises," she explained. "But goods and services are provided in all kinds of ways: by parents who are caring for children or elders at home, or people who are volunteering their expertise at a school, or workers in non-traditional enterprises - including nonprofit organizations, worker collectives, family businesses, and self-employment. Many of these efforts are just not accounted for in economic statistics, or are not targeted by economic policymakers. They’re part of what we call a ‘hidden economy,’" she said.
Although some experts believe that such contributions account for 30-50 percent of the gross national product, "many of these activities are relatively invisible, as are the people who perform them," said Graham. "Their economic contributions may be unrecognized or undervalued, despite the fact that they put in long hours of work." Most development planning excludes these people, and tends to take place instead among recognized business and government leaders and planners, she said. As a result, communities may not be aware of many of the people and activities that contribute to regional well-being.
The goal of the project, she said, is to foster economic links between the visible, recognized sector of the economy and the relatively unrecognized sector; to increase communication and mutual respect among local people; and to tap into the full range of economic and social resources available for development. Traditional development strategies tend to concentrate on providing subsidies and a "job-ready" labor force. "But because they focus on only a fraction of the economy, these strategies miss the economic potential of many of the community’s resources," Graham said.
The project will involve people from the community assisting researchers by interviewing workers and documenting the "informal" and unpaid work that takes place in the Pioneer Valley. Marginalized workers as well as leaders in government and business will be interviewed in groups. They will also meet in community conferences to discuss the economic challenges facing the region, how the region is coping with these challenges, and the potential contribution of alternative economic activities. Researchers will also produce an economic audit of the region, highlighting the diversity of economic practices, Graham said.
The information gleaned through the interviews, conferences, case studies, and the audit will be used in a variety of publications, including: a pamphlet outlining the diverse economic practices of the region, with stories that suggest options and opportunities for economic development; a book of case studies of alternative economic organizations in the U.S., Australia, and Southeast Asia; a how-to booklet for groups wishing to conduct community-based research on their local economy; and scholarly publications exploring the limits of mainstream development practice and the potential of alternative kinds of economic development.