Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Household Bargaining and "Housewives"

I got a question yesterday about why I counted "housewives" among consumers with limitations. Looking at the list, I suppose they do stand out among the groups of people that I mention. In any case, it’s a good question.

My answer begins with the idea of what a consumer limitation is. A definition: any circumstance, whether lack of money, time, or product availability, that restricts the purchase of a reasonable amount of one’s consumer desires. It’s a thorny definition, particularly the “reasonable” part, but I’m just saying that the inability to buy a car would be considered a limitation while the inability to buy a plane would not be considered a limitation.

So, the question becomes: does the lack of one’s own income restrict one’s ability to move money around? Even in the most ideal marital circumstances, I’m pretty sure that it does. (I’m allowing there are other benefits.) Perhaps there are some marriages in which both partners share money completely and equally, regardless of who brings it in. But economists using bargaining models suggest that economic power (in the form of actual or potential income) do impact who has the power to distribute resources. Cheryl Doss’ article Bargaining Power within the Household discusses many of these issues. A telling example is a naturally occurring experiment in which the UK changed the recipient of a child tax credit from men to women. Expenditures on children’s and women’s clothing went up while men’s cloth expenditures went down. It's a complicated issue but her conclusion is clear, “This suggests that allocating the money to women gave them more power to decide how it should be spent.”

The last question is, “Why not just write stay-at-home partners/parents?” It would be an easy way out of being called to explain myself. But the situation is gendered. There are far more housewives than househusbands and there are real reasons behind that above and beyond this supposed trend that Gen Y women want to relive the 50s. The income gap between men and women persists and really only tells half the shameful story. The US is just about the worst at providing legal protection and support for women who want to take time off work to have their children. US politicians and businesspeople claim it’s about efficiency and “the economy” but some of the world’s fiercest economies, like Sweden, Germany, and the UK offer far more generous benefits.

Add all that up and you have a bundle of incentives against women having children and staying the workforce. Seeing as the vast majority of people want children, women are forced to play with a stacked deck that pushes more economic power into the hands of men. As a result, everyone’s options are reduced (although men are harder to feel bad for).

So, in the US as it is, it seems to me that including housewives among my list of poets of consumption is a (raw) gesture to the gendered nature of economic inequality.

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