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The GDP and at-home mommies

May 18th, 2004 · 3 Comments

An interesting post yesterday by Jane Galt at Asymmetrical Information. The comments are good too. I have to say I’ve never considered the effect of my choice to stay at home with my children on our national GDP. It’s fun for me to apply what she wrote to my own situation:

First she quoted from writing by Stuart Buck (link broken) that included some statistics. Of the quoted 19.5 million children under 6 in 2002, 3 of them were mine! Is the value of unpaid work truly close to 50% of the GDP?!

Then she concluded

So was some large proportion of our GDP growth in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s a function of political change, rather than actually having a more productive economy?

I’d argue no, because I think that the political change that propelled women into the workforce was actually in large part a function of economic change: household labour became vastly more productive.

Without repeating myself and previous posts I’ve written about household work, I’d dare to say that I’m not sure

Women in the house, other than those with small children, became economically useless to their families once labour-saving devices and modern food processing made 90% of their labour obsolete.

Nature abhors a vacuum – or a vacuum cleaner perhaps 🙂 – and I think that women still have hours of labor to do at home.

This study claims 13 hours a week. Modern food processing may help make meals but the best ones are still made fresh from fruits, vegetables and meats that require time and energy to process at home with knife and cutting board, for example. “One-stop shopping” is a myth, and suburban sprawl can require hours of driving and searching for commodities. Nevermind the laundry and dishes and yardwork and household repairs…

I could go to work and try to fit in my 2 – 3 hours a day of domestic duties at the end of my work shift, at home at night. Many women do this.

But what many women also do is hire others to do the work for them. Women who work and families where both parents work, are more likely to buy restaurant meals, take laundry to the dry cleaners and hire help to clean the house. I suspect that for each woman who enters the workforce, there are other jobs that depend on her working: the fast food cashier, the grocery store baker, the “cleaning lady”. So of course a woman working has an effect on the economy.

I do appreciate the idea of considering what is the value of unpaid work done at home, and as Jane Galt commented today:

In other words, are we, or are we not, moving labour from higher valued to lower valued uses when women stay home.

I’d argue that the answer is that we are, not because child-rearing is not as highly valued as whatever the woman was doing before, but because the opportunity cost is very, very large.

I do have small children so I guess I’m not “economically useless” yet. But I don’t think I will be if I stay at home. I think that there are benefits to having one parent who can focus on the children during the day. I imagine that there are “economic” benefits to that stability too. I also would like to think that as a homeschooling mom, I am raising up children who will be productive in the economy, that what I’m investing in them will be returned (at a good ROI!). Then again, I’m also taking teaching jobs away from the schools, I suppose….

For our family, we’ve decided we have another “economy”, one that isn’t an acronym calculated by the government. We’ve chosen what makes sense for us. Money plays only a small part in that choice.

I’ve realized recently that I could work. I’ve noticed how much time I manage to find for blogging, and I’ve thought that if I had to do so, I could put that time into a job and earn money. The question is what kind of job could I do at this stage? Life with young children requires flexibility. What could I do during the day that the kids could do with me (so I wouldn’t have to hire childcare for 3!) or what (moral!) work could I do at night on the Internet for a few hours?

In yesterday’s Seattle Times I saw an article about TimeBucks.org: people trade services with each other for the value of 15 timebucks an hour. Now that sounds like something I could fit into my schedule easier. I like the idea and the community it would build. It reminds me a bit of babysitting coop with poker chips, only more diversity.

Jane Galt finished her post

And the business world is still largely designed for men: it is not structured to accomodate professional women who stay home with young children. On that, more later.

I’m looking forward to reading whatever she writes next…

Tags: motherhood

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jane Galt // May 19, 2004 at 8:05 am

    Well, if you’re homeschooling, you’re doing a full day’s work; I was talking about women who put their children into school when they’re home. Though “economically useless” was probably unduly perjorative, 13 hours of housework a week, while miserable when added on top of a full time job, is not, in my humble opinion, enough to keep a bright, active woman occupied once the children are spending the bulk of their day in someone else’s classroom.

    I honor the choice women make to stay home with their families; it’s a choice I hope to make myself, if and when I have pre-school children. But I think we’re in a transitional phase, economically right now: there isn’t enough work at home to occupy a women with children in school, nor is there a good way for most women to integrate working and childcare. I think that can, and will, change eventually to allow women (and dare I hope it — men) to develop careers while still being there for their families. At least, I really, really hope it will.

  • 2 Paul // May 19, 2004 at 9:22 pm

    huh, this staying home with children isn’t just for women, ya know.

    When people talk about the work of stay-at-home parents as a simplified to do list of laundry, cooking and cleaning, they demonstrate that they don’t know anything about it. There are the basics of keeping a family clean and fed, but what about taking them to school, working in their school, running errands, going on field trips, volunteering in the community — all the stuff that previous generations would understand but ours does not.

    It’s interesting to see how super-volunteers are recognized (Mary Gates, mother of the world’s richest man[tm] comes to mind) without acknowledging the fact that someone was out earning a living that covered the expenses necessary for her (or me) to do those things that don’t come with a compensation package.

    I see this as an opportunity, more than a burden, but that doesn’t prevent me from wishing it were better understood. And when some public figure starts to push a policy that makes it easier (and less of an issue) for one-income families to succeed, they’ll have my support. I understand this is a choice: doing without the second income takes the second home, the boat, the Las Vegas vacations off the table. But there might be some benefits that offset those “losses.”

  • 3 Julie // May 21, 2004 at 8:03 am

    Thanks, Paul. I appreciate your perspective as a stay-at-home dad and all that you are giving to your family and society.