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1. Hail the Home Economy

By Allan Carlson
Director, Center for Community and Economy

When you hear the term “home economics” today, it is common to consider it a matter of fairly minor concern.

True, many grandmothers now living were predictably once enrolled in home economics courses when in high school. These were mandatory classes for the girls where they learned to make French toast and grilled cheese sandwiches, to sew a simple dress, and to pick up the basics of home canning and baby care. Oddly, such programs were funded by the federal government, as were the parallel courses for boys in woodshop, metal shop and agriculture. In addition, as late as 1955, home economics was the most popular major for young women attending a university.

During the 1960s, though, the home economics movement collapsed before the new feminist onslaught. It was “sexist,” the charge went, to distinguish the practical educations of young men and women, and so guide girls toward “homemaking.” At first, home economists responded by pushing the boys into the “home ec” classes and the girls into “shop.” Eventually, the discipline simply surrendered, as evidenced in a frantic search for a new name – “Human Environment Studies” or “Family and Interpersonal Relationship Studies” – anything that avoided the now-dreaded word “home.”

In the early 21st century, “home economics” of the old school survives primarily at county fairs, particularly in 4-H buildings. In these places, one still finds sewing, baking and baby care projects, all bearing a wistful, nostalgic glow.

Forgotten is the fact that both the original home economics movement and the 4-H movement itself were profoundly political efforts to save the family from the negative effects of industrial capitalism, by preserving some measure of home autonomy. In one sense, both movements failed.

Yet in another sense, the effort to defend the functional home has gained new importance and new allies. Ironically, just as home economists gave up the battle and surrendered to their radical egalitarian foes, analysts in a different discipline were beginning to document the vital social and economic role that has been played by the modern “homemaker” in holding the most corrosive of industrial capitalism’s incentives at bay.

The needed breakthrough in analytical economics came in a 1965 article by Gary Becker of the University of Chicago (for which he later received the Nobel Prize). In prior decades, economic analysis of the household had been stymied by the problem of “unexplained variations in tastes,” which prevented the explanation or prediction of behavior. In breaking the deadlock, Becker offered a simple insight: “Time is money.” Personal decisions on the use of leisure (“non-market”) time and on choice of marriage mate, family size, divorce, or “lifestyle” were all susceptible to economic analysis, once one understood that these choices involved the allocation of scarce resources (including “psychic income” such as love) among competing ends.

Appropriately, this mode of analysis was soon called “the new home economics,” and it began to produce important insights about the place of gender roles and the homemaker in the economy. Researchers discovered, for example, that the professional education of women was significantly related to family formation. Additional years spent by women in training for paid employment resulted in later marriages and a growing tendency to avoid the altar altogether. Others noted that whereas a marriage between a working man and a woman at home made valuable economic sense (each bringing complementary skills to the marital bond so that both are “better off” than if they remained single), a marriage between economic equals offered little direct gain, since the true “division of labor” in a household was thereby sacrificed. This meant that “risk adverse” individuals would tend to rely more on “trial marriages.” Existing marriages, moreover, would tend to be more fragile and divorce increasingly popular.

At the same time, while most economists – of both the liberal and free-market varieties – have denigrated the residual “home economy” sector as antiquated or irrelevant, others have documented its surprising vitality. For instance, Duncan Ironmonger of the University of Melbourne offers a good summary of continuing home-centered activities, including meal preparation, laundry and cleaning, shopping, various forms of child care, elder care, gardening, pet care, repairs and maintenance, transportation, and volunteer community work. Moreover, he shows that the quality of these goods and services is often of higher value than that found in the marketplace (for example, he compares the parental care of children to the level of care found in the average commercial daycare center).

Ironmonger has also carefully calculated the shadow value produced by what he calls “household industries.” For Australia in 1992, he reports this so-called Gross Household Product was worth $341 billion, about equal to the economic value added by market production that year. Assuming a rough equivalence between the U.S. and Australia (which is reasonable in this case), the same figure for the whole United States would be a Gross Household Product of about $13 trillion in 2011! For Utah alone, the figure would be about $120 billion. Now that’s not chicken feed, even by contemporary federal government standards.

One reason that the home economy is easy to ignore is that it is difficult to count. When a mother breastfeeds her baby or a father mows the lawn, no money changes hands. Yet, while contributing to the invisibility of the home-based sector of the economy, this difficulty in calculating its size has a virtue: It is also hard to tax. For surely, once economic gain has been counted, the tax collectors will soon appear, demanding the government’s share.

For state governments that treasure strong homes and healthy families, there are policy implications regarding this rediscovery of the economic power of the home. This is what legislators need to do:
1. Protect true home economies from invasion by both regulators and tax collectors;
2. End public subsidies of non-family activities (such as collective day care) that effectively discriminate against the home economy;
3. Stop coercive gender-role engineering, driven by anti-family ideologies, within public schools and other state entities.

And enjoy that homemade grilled cheese sandwich.

The author, Dr. Allan C. Carlson, is director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Community and Economy, president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, and an associate professor at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Dr. Carlson founded the World Congress of Families in 1997. He has written for numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Intercollegiate Review, and is the editor of The Family in America. He is the author of nine books, including The Natural Family: A Manifesto (Spence, 2007), which he co-authored with Paul T. Mero.

 

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