Economics 101: Productivity Starts at Home

A recent study made headlines (including here at The Gospel Coalition) by claiming to measure the economic value of work in the home. Although the study provides a useful reminder of the value of domestic work, it may also point to an important shortcoming in the contemporary church’s understanding of work in the home and in the economy.

Financial service company Investopedia added up what it would cost to hire someone to do cooking, cleaning, child care, driving, laundry, and lawn service equivalent to a full-time homemaker. They came up with $96,261.

Studies like this one are perennial; we’ve been doing them since at least the 1950s. They’re a useful reminder of how much productive work goes on in the home, and how much the home therefore matters. This is obviously a critical point for the church to reinforce from a scriptural standpoint.

However, studies like this can also lead us in the wrong direction. The first studies of this kind were conducted for the purpose of denigrating domestic labor. The idea was to demonstrate that marriage was an oppressive institution. Men were using marriage to extract enormous economic value from women without compensation. Women wouldn’t be liberated until they became economically independent from men. Thus marriage must no longer include an economic union of the partners, because that’s exploitative. Marriage had to be reduced to a merely sexual relationship. And you can see where the logic proceeded from there.

Investopedia seems to have the opposite idea in mind—-to honor domestic labor. Describing their findings, they emphasize that the economic value of domestic labor implies marriage partners are economically interdependent. If the husband works outside the home and the wife works inside it, he is as economically dependent upon her as she is upon him. And while Investopedia doesn’t make this point, you can say the same of two-income couples. Regardless of whether you have a one-income or two-income family, the basic point is that marriage is not just a sexual relationship; it is also, among much else, a state of permanent economic interdependence. (This is one of the many injustices involved in divorce.)

That’s great as far as it goes. I’m always a fan of honoring domestic labor. I love full-time moms so much, I married one.

Materialistic Assumptions

Yet the method of their study may have a tendency to reinforce materialistic assumptions about the nature of human relationships in both the family and the economy. Since God originally designed human beings to spend most of their time in productive work because he wants us to bless each other, understanding the social conditions of productive work is critical for the church.

The study invites us to think of domestic work as something that could be reduced to a series of merely contractual services. The biggest trouble comes in when they define parenting as “child care” and measure its economic value by looking at what a babysitter would charge. Parenting isn’t babysitting. It is the unique and exhilarating adventure of nurturing an infinitely precious, infinitely complex, infinitely frustrating (I have a rambunctious 6-year-old) image-bearing human being from infancy to maturity.

You can’t measure the value of that by asking how much babysitters charge. This is why, for example, child support payments are no substitute for a father.

You can’t even measure its economic value that way. The ultimate precondition of all economic value is someone’s productive work, and parenting does more than anything to make us into productive workers. Our parents predominate in the formation of our virtues, knowledge, habits, and socialization. Just think for a moment about the future economic productivity of a well-raised child versus a neglected child. Parenting affects not only the child’s earnings but also the productivity of the entire economy and hence the survival and flourishing of our society.

The study can also be critiqued in the opposite direction. In some ways it underestimates the economic contribution of family members who work outside the home. For example, its estimates include the cost of providing hired domestic workers with benefits such as health insurance. That adds a substantial dollar amount. Yet in most families these benefits are already provided by family members who work outside the home. Including them in the estimate assumes that these benefits aren’t shared. Economic interdependence is a two-way street. Moreover, the study includes the cost of lawn care, which is a task that usually falls solely upon the husband—-the notorious “grass ceiling.”

Our Very Survival

This is a topic that professional economists are beginning to discover and explore. There has been an explosion of empirical studies linking family life—-in other words, productive work in the home—-to economic outcomes. The economic value of the family is not measured in five-figure sums but in the very survival of our national economic system.

These findings are slowly making their way up to the theoretical level as well. Books like Love and Economics and Gross National Happiness have challenged some of the methodological assumptions of classical economics. A school of thought called New Institutional Economics is exploring how economic transactions are shaped by the social structure of institutions, including not just businesses and the like but also the family and even the church.

I wouldn’t be so concerned about this study’s method if not for the larger and more destructive cultural dynamic that it may unintentionally reinforce. One of the most seductive myths of our time is that economics can be reduced to material things like money and contracts. Most of the economic dysfunctions we see in the world around us can be traced back to the assumption that economic activity is merely a giant web of utilitarian transactions. This trains us to think about our daily work and our participation in the economy in terms of what we get out of it, not the blessings we cultivate from the creation order through our work.

Just as sex is never merely a physical event but is always a moral and spiritual act, productive work is never merely a utilitarian transaction but is always moral and spiritual. Just as marriage can’t be reduced to just a sexual relationship, economics can’t be reduced to merely finances. Trying to measure the economic value of parenting brings all this home on both fronts.

I’m glad that voices like Investopedia are reminding us that domestic work is economically productive. In addition to honoring those who perform this labor, let’s take this opportunity to remind ourselves of two other enduring truths. One is that social structures can never be separated into hermetically sealed silos—-the family here, the economy there, the church over here, creative arts over there, politics over yonder, and so on. Human civilization is an organic ecosystem; it is complex and dynamic, but always integrated. Everything affects everything else. The other is that there is no such thing as a morally neutral social structure. The family, the economy, and so forth are just institutional expressions of human relationships. God forbid we ever treat the relationships among his image-bearing creatures as anything less than profoundly spiritual realities.

This article is tagged with

Show Comments