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.

  • Dave

    Outside the materialistic implications, the numbers these sorts of “studies” use have always struck me as extremely questionable.

    e.g. they assume a private chef making $200-$500/day and estimate ~$52260/year as the cost.

    The problem: the US median wage of a head chef / cook in the US is about $40,000 and the average stay-at-home mom doesn’t have the training nor the same degree of experience and probably devotes a lot less than 5.71 hours per day to food prep (the hours per day you’d need to be working to get that $40,000 median salary).

    So, according to these figures you could hire a full-time cook to replace whatever time you or your spouse devote to food prep (and instead work those extra few minutes) and save $12,000/year (which in turn should be more than enough to supply the entirety of your food for the year for a typical family). Seem reasonable? I think not.

    • david bartosik

      not sure where you are going with this…that you should pay a home chef 40k a year instead of 52? THat the wife should work and you should hire a home chef? Maybe I missed your point in there or maybe it was a statement how these studies are faulty. Either way I am still curious where you were going with it.

      • Greg Forster

        He seems to be asking why they based their estimate on the daily rate charged by chefs times 365 days, rather than just using the average annual salary of a full time chef. It’s a good question. You pay much, much more per hour when you hire labor in smaller increments than in larger ones. So this method would appear to inflate the estimate. In fact, even the annual salary figure would inflate it; presumably the volume discount for buying labor in large increments would continue to apply in increments of larger than one year.

        On the other hand, there are many ways in which the cooking of a mom or dad produces much more economic value for the family (and thus should be imputed at a higher dollar value) than the cooking of a hired chef. A child getting food from mom or dad is not just getting food, but is also getting tangible reinforcement of the familial bond, which is highly valuable for the reasons I pointed to.

        To my mind, it just goes to reinforce my point that these studies can never truly measure the value of domestic labor with a high degree of accuracy.

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  • Cristian Rata

    CHRYSOSTOM has some relevant (of course traditional) comments on this topic:

    “God has put into a man’s heart the capacity to love his wife, and into a woman’s heart the capacity to love her husband. But their mutual dependence makes them love each other out of necessity also.

    At times love within the heart may not be sufficient to maintain the bond of marriage. But love which comes from material necessity will give that bond the strength it needs to endure times of difficulty.

    The same is true for society as a whole. God has put into every person’s heart the capacity to love his neighbors. But that love is immeasurably strengthened by their dependence on one another’s skills.”

  • James McCarty

    Thanks for the post! :D Started writing it myself when I saw the first Gospel Coalition post about the study. I was so relieved that someone from TGC wrote it instead of me! You have ability to reach the original audience far better than I could. It was somthing that definitely needed to be said too. Thanks again!!

  • Truth unites… And divides

    Thanks for puncturing a seductive myth

  • Bill Whamond

    Thank you, great article!
    Studies like this tell us the price that equivalent “arm’s-length” priced services would be in the market-place. As others have already commented, these can be imprecise and laden with presuppositions. Nevertheless, they are interesting.
    We need to keep in mind that economics as a science was unnecessary before Genesis 3: all work was done out of obedience to our heavenly Father, and done for His glory; all of creation and its fruits was available to us by grace, for free……..boy, those were the days.
    Having raised 4 of our own, and now blessed with a fifth (adopted) child in our “retirement”, we can affirm your thesis that the value which accrues from work outside the home is truly earned equally by the one outside and the one inside the home.

  • Greg Forster

    I would disagree that economics was unnecessary before the fall. There was work before the fall – God made Adam and Eve to cultivate blessing from the creation with their work. And where there’s work, there’s economics!

    • Bill Whamond

      No, there’s not…….work does not give rise to economics. Economics deals with the phenomenon of EXCHANGE…….of inputs and outputs.Before Genesis 3, I agree, there was an “input” (humankind’s labor)……but the “output” was God’s glory. This is a concept with which the science of economics was never designed to deal.
      And i’m curious where Scripture states that God’s purpose in making Adam and Eve was to “cultivate blessing”.

      • Greg Forster

        That’s a pretty idiosyncratic definition of “economics.”

  • Luma

    Towards the end of the second to the last chapter in “Love and Economics” Dr. Morse says:

    “The American experiment in self-government will surely falter unless the vast majority of the people possess a reasonable view of their own value and dignity as persons coupled with a similar view of the value and dignity of others. Those of us who have some experience in being in a relationship with God owe it to our countrymen to offer an honest account of that experience.”

    I would add: What could possibly give us a correct assessment of our value and dignity and that of our neighbor’s, but the gospel of Jesus Christ? Dr. Morse is right, we owe to our countrymen to speak the truth of the gospel in faith without fear.

    As for the issue of stay-at-home-moms versus moms who work outside the home, I would give the same answer. A woman’s worth, identity, and value (economic or otherwise) is grounded in who she is in Christ. Period. I long for women to believe that. I know what it did to me when I didn’t believe it.

    Thank you for the post Dr. Forster.

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