Unfinished business

December 1, 1995

Nancy Folbre argues that women are not yet powerful enough to persuade men to share the costs of child-care.

Gender is now an indispensable word in the economic development vocabulary. Most international organisations, including the United Nations and the World Bank, have special units devoted to research on women's issues. Their reports tend to have a cheerful, self-congratulatory tone, celebrating how much women have gained. Of course, there are still some poor, benighted, developing countries where women remain downtrodden. But the West is helping them to see the light. In these days of otherwise rather gloomy economics, it is nice to be in a good mood about something.

At the risk of raining on this happy parade, I must say that I believe the picture is more complicated. In the course of economic development, women tend to gain new rights as individuals, but to become more economically vulnerable as mothers. Studies documenting improvements in women's educational levels, labour force participation, and wages are all very nice. But the most compelling recent research digs deeper and generates new insights into a complex interaction between the family and the growth of markets. An emerging feminist economics focuses on the evolution of social institutions and the ways they are shaped by gender-based collective action.

Many economists are now persuaded that property rights evolve in response to two different kinds of pressures - efficiency and power. Most property rights come into existence because they provide an efficient alternative to endless negotiation or fighting. But however efficient it may be, a given set of property rights almost always benefits some groups more than others, and is therefore hotly contested.

In traditional patriarchal societies, the male head of household tends to control land and other assets. While daughters may inherit a portion, they typically lose control over it when they marry. Parents depend on children to contribute to family income and provide support in old age, which reinforces high fertility. Women have few alternatives to marriage, and generally lack both political and economic power.

As economic development takes place, however, the family loses some of its importance as a unit of production, and patriarchal property rights become less efficient. The cost of raising children tends to increase, in part because of higher educational requirements, in part because the work of childcare can no longer be easily combined with other productive activities. Fertility tends to decline. Women gain economic independence with work outside the home, and begin organising collectively to improve their position.

If that were all there were to the story, we could sit back and celebrate a process of modernisation that makes everybody better off, even if it ruffles a few male feathers. But not so fast. Why did patriarchal systems emerge in the first place? Part of the answer may lie in an institutional logic linking relationships between men and women to those between parents and children. In traditional patriarchal regimes, land ownership gave fathers considerable leverage over children, and allowed them to expect at least some benefits in the form of labour contributions and support in old age. While this system intensified the economic incentives for coercive forms of control over women, it also provided some implicit rate of return for women's reproductive labour within the family economy. Men who abused or neglected their family lowered their own economic welfare. In the aggregate, male control over property provided an enforcement mechanism that provided incentives for paternal care of dependents, with pro-natalist, but also pro-family effects.

With the increase in labour markets and individually-based employment, families become less economically important. Obligations to care for kin are reinforced more by altruism and affection than by economic rewards. The probability of diminished commitment to family life increases partly because men have less to gain from the fulfilment of responsibilities to mothers and children. Women gain new freedoms to compete with men in the marketplace, but men gain new freedoms to minimize their responsibility to dependents.

In the highly developed countries, childless women who work full time now earn wages similar to those of men with the same education and experience. But mothers face an increased risk of poverty, especially where public policies fail to provide an adequate social safety net. This trend is increasingly evident in developing countries as well: there is evidence of an increase in the percentage of families maintained by women alone in both Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.

This is not surprising, given the history of property rights. Very few countries have laws that effectively define and enforce mothers' or children's claims on the earnings of a male breadwinner. Fathers have always been exhorted to provide for wives and children. However, when they have failed to do so, they have seldom been susceptible to any formal negative sanctions. Desertion and/or divorce offer most fathers a significant improvement in their personal disposable income. Only in the past 20 years have the now-developed countries developed legal mechanisms for the enforcement of fathers' child support responsibilities.

Whether due to biology or culture or some combination, mothers seem to have stronger commitments to children than fathers do. Therefore, they are less affected by the increasing economic pressure to avoid or to default on parental responsibilities. This is not to say that the growth of labour markets weakens all families; rather, it increases the risk of certain kinds of "family failure" that we might think of as analogous to "market failure" or "state failure." It is not efficient; it invites some institutional response. Such a response is already under way, in the form of collective efforts to reform family and social policy. However, men as a group have less to gain economically than mothers and children from reforms that enforce paternal and social responsibilities. Women's groups seeking such reforms meet considerable resistance from men.

There is a lesson here for policy debates about privatisation and reductions in social safety nets. Free markets may provide a substitute for some previously state-run activities, but they do not provide support for families. Childrearing is an expensive undertaking, and individuals and businesses that devote time and money to it will have a hard time competing with those who do not. Yet non-market work devoted to raising the next generation makes an enormous contribution to economic welfare. Children are public goods. Failure to collectively ensure their welfare and education will hamper economic growth.

Many advocates for women in development emphasise the greater need for greater equality between men and women. But the process of economic development has taught us that it is easier to gain equal rights for women than to impose equal responsibilities for the care of children and other dependents on men. Some conservatives argue that women have become too powerful, that their independence and self-assertion threaten the future of the family. But it may be that women have simply not become powerful enough to persuade men to bear an equal share of the costs of rearing the next generation.

Nancy Folbre is professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts.

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