February 10, 1998 Notes
Summary of Nancy Folbre, Who Pays for the
How do individuals, families, groups (ethnic groups, tribes, communities)
and society as a whole reproduce their populations? Who bears
primary responsibility for this, and how are the costs borne by
different individuals and groups in society? What are the consequences
of this for social change? These are some of the main issues that
concern Nancy Folbre in her book Who Pays for the Kids?,
and these will be the issues that we will discuss in this second
part of the semester.
1. Past Societies.
Many different ways in which childbearing and socialization arranged.
2. Current Era.
Why might we be concerned with these issues in contemporary society?
Fertility is fairly low, so that there are usually relatively
few children in each family. Families are generally able to care
for children and there are many public programs such as public
education that are available. So why be concerned with these issues?
Many of these are issues that are concerns of Folbre in Who Pays for the Kids? and constitute some of the reasons why she addresses the issue of child costs, along with individual, family, and societal responsibility for these.
B. Overview of Folbre, Who Pays for the
Nancy Folbre is an economist at the University of Massachusetts.
Her analysis may be concerned primarily with economic issues,
although the analysis overlaps with many sociological concerns,
so that she can be considered to be a social theorist.
Folbre also very active in popularizing her ideas and making them
available outside the university setting. She participates in
various forms of popular education and has published
The New Field Guide to the U.S. Economy
The War on the Poor: A Defense Manual. More information
about her publications and interests are available at her
2. General Approach
The concerns Folbre expresses in Who Pays for the Kids? have to do with
Folbre discusses these concerns in a manner that leads to a general
approach to society, one that is applicable beyond the topics
of children, family, and male-female relationships. In Who
Pays for the Kids? she develops a new theoretical approach
that has wide applicability in contemporary society. Among the
topics she examines are the nature and structure of individual
and group identity (sex or gender, ethnicity, sexual preference,
nation), the manner in which collective action develops
and proceeds (social movements, family, class, political action),
and the structures of constraint in contemporary society
(economic and other assets, political position, patriarchy or
gender based constraints). As a result, her analysis moves beyond
the strictly economic, constructing a basis for a theoretical
approach that can be used to examine many issues and institutions
in today's world.
Many of these issues are similar to those discussed by sociologists
when examining the sociology of the family and sex roles, and
in concerns associated with political sociology -the role of the
state and of social institutions such as the family and social
security. Folbre's concerns are highly political as well
- these issues are raised within the context of threatened or
actual reduction or elimination of social policies and programs.
Since the 1930s and 1940s, these policies and programs have helped
support families economically, but they not are under attack by
neoconservative interests and those with particular views of what
are appropriate family and household structures.
The manner in which Folbre analyses issues in Who Pays for
the Kids? is to first discuss the opposed approaches taken
by neoclassical or mainstream economics and by Marxian social
theory. She discusses the Rational Economic Man (REM) of neoclassical
economics - the rational male decision maker who carefully calculates
costs and benefits or alternative courses of action, making a
decision that maximizes his utility. This is the economic model
that emerged from the classical economic thinkers of the nineteenth
century and has dominated much of contemporary economic theorizing.
In opposition to the REM model's view that individuals have many
choices, Marxian approaches have emphasized the limited opportunities
of workers in capitalist societies. Folbre outlines the Marxian
approach to analysis of capitalism and shows how Mr. Prol (the
worker or member of the proletariat) has few economic assets beyond
the ability to work, has few choices, and as a result is exploited
In the first chapter of Who Pays for the Kids? Folbre considers
both of these models to be inadequate or incomplete, and introduces
a feminist approach. To the male agent in each of the neoclassical
economic and Marxist approaches, she posits a male or female agent,
one that faces many constraints and limits, but one that also
has choices - choices that can be exercised individually or in
groups. The manner in which individual choice is exercised, how
groups are formed, what identities an individual has or develops,
and what forms of collective action develop are important in analyzing
the structure or and changes in the contemporary world. The feminist
approach developed by Folbre rejects some aspects of neoclassical
economics and Marxian social theory, but in general builds on
the important insights and contributions that each of them have
3. Folbre's Claims and Arguments
The "Introduction" of Who Pays for the Kids?
(pp. 1-11) provide an overview of the argument of the book. On
the first two pages, there are three claims, and these claims
match the first three chapters of the book. These claims and some
of their implications are outlined below.
Claim 1. Political economy has not paid sufficient attention
to the relation between males and females and between parents
and children. (p.1) In particular, Folbre notes that females have
primary responsibility for caring for children and devoting resources
to children. Why? What is the answer of neoclassical economics
and of Marxian political economy?
(a) Neoclassical economics. The answer of neoclassical economics is that this is an element of choice. There are several reasons why choices are made in this manner:
(b) Marxian Approach. The Marxist view that comes
from the writing of Friedrich Engels has been that when private
property originally emerged, a system of patriarchy developed,
of male control over females, or females as property. This was
an attempt by males to ensure the legitimacy of heirs,
and gave males an incentive to control women's sexuality
(Folbre, p. 31). This system of male power existed before capitalism,
but as capitalism emerged and developed, this patriarchal system
became even more solidly entrenched, especially in households
and families with considerable amounts of property.
More recently, the economic pressure on the working class has
required working class households to have two or more income earners
if they are to survive. As a result, females have entered
the labour force in large numbers as a means of responding to
this pressure. In this view, the continuing division of labour
within the household may be viewed as partly natural and
partly a result of the continuing legacy of patriarchy.
Only if private property is eliminated can it be expected that
there to be true equality of males and females.
(c) Critique of Neoclassical and Marxian Approach. In Chapter 1, Folbre introduces a number of criticisms that can be levelled against the above approaches. Some of these are as follows.
While the issue of the costs of children is dominant in Folbre's
book, in Chapters 1 and 2, Folbre examines the neoclassical and
Marxist economic models in a more general manner. The REM and
IRSEP of neoclassical economics (summary on p. 24) and Mr. Prol
and Mr. Neoprol of Marxian political economy (summary on p. 35)
are examined at the start of Chapter 1. Folbre asks what is missing
or misleading about these models. She does not provide an answer
to each of these in Chapter 1, but does provide a framework for
analysis. The elements that she points to in Chapter 1 are as
Folbre establishes a framework to analyze these issues in Chapter 1. She develops a four fold classification that can lead to developing a more adequate analysis of the issues raised above. These are summarized in the stylized feminist approach on page 49 and are as follows:
This four fold framework is used by Folbre throughout her book,
and provides a way of tackling some of the issues surrounding
social reproduction. In addition to issues related to child care
and family, this framework may have more general uses, and is
one way of taking some of the ideas from a feminist perspective
and integrating them with earlier theoretical approaches.
Claim 2. "Both production and reproduction are shaped
by diverse forms of collective action" (p. 1). This argument
forms the basis for much of Chapter 2 on collective action
and structures of constraint. Part II of Who Pays for
the Kids? examines histories of social reproduction to illustrate
this. For example, in Canada, various forms of collective action
and political decision making led to the establishment of social
programs such as unemployment insurance, family allowances, and
public pension plans for seniors. In the mid 1960s, medicare was
established as a result of social and political action, first
in Saskatchewan, then across Canada. In contrast, some of these
programs have not been established in the United States, although
there are different sets of social programs there. Although it
may be difficult to determine the effects of these different types
of social programs in the two countries, it is likely that they
have affected the structure and location of industrial enterprises.
In terms of health costs, universal medical care in Canada has
created considerably different health conditions than has the
privately structured medical care system in the United States.
The structures of constraint are the structural factors
outlined in Chapter 1: assets, rules, norms, and preferences (ARNP).
These outline the limits within which decisions can be made and
within which social action and interaction takes place. These
may change over time and it is these changes that are of interest
for social science. In fact, it is often the collective action
that individuals undertake that results in changes in these structures.
Folbre also notes (p. 51) that the structures may imply contradictory
constraints on individuals. This is because individuals simultaneously
occupy different positions. That is, individuals are not
just females or working class or Canadians. For example, in the
past working class women were often poor (low income and few monetary
assets constraint) and could have benefited themselves and their
families by participating in the paid labour force. Yet the structures
of rules and norms (and perhaps even preferences) may not have
allowed this. How individuals decide which group identity to adopt
in these circumstances is a question that is especially of interest
The issues related to collective action are
Particularly important in Folbre's analysis is her multi-systems
approach, whereby individuals simultaneously occupy a number
of position, and whereby an individual may simultaneously be oppressor
and oppressed. The six groupings that form the bulk of her analysis
are positions, groups, and identities based on age, sex or gender,
sexual preference, ethnicity or race, nation, and class. No one
of these is to be considered primary or more important than another
in any theoretical sense. That is, individuals may consider themselves
part of one or all of these groupings, and how individuals relate
to others in these groupings can be examined historically and
by looking at the various structures, agents, processes, and sites.
While a focus on these multiple positions and identities may provide
a theoretical approach which is not as tightly organized or predictive
as the neoclassical or Marxist model, it may be more useful in
helping explain how groups form, how people decide to be part
of a group, what is the nature of allegiances and alliances, and
how people distinguish themselves from others, developing ideas
In Chapter 2, Folbre discusses good and bad structures and the
strategies that people take within these structures. Much of the
discussion is historical, with an examination of the origins of
patriarchy and groupings such as race and nation. She also looks
at more recent historical factors such as modernization, reform,
and revolution and the gains, conflicts, inequalities, and strategies
pursued by different groups. For the most part, Chapter 2 is again
concerned with developing a theoretical approach, rather than
Claim 3. The third element of the book is more methodological
and is "to illustrate and substantiate its hypothesis through
the use of historical narratives. The game may be too complicated
to model, the hypothesis too broad to test in any literal way"
(p. 2). But Folbre's concerns here are as a feminist, that is,
she attempts to explain the persistence of patriarchal power
(Ch. 3) over long historical periods and in recent history. Her
main claim, summarized at the end of Chapter 2, is that modernization
and economic development have usually led to family labour
and social reproduction being penalized, devalued, or
ignored and "neither the market nor the state offers
a very good solution for problems of social reproduction"
(p. 88). That is, neither the capitalist nor the socialist countries
have solved these problems very well. In general, the position
of women is still inferior and patriarchy has not been eliminated.
Folbre concentrates on three specific features of economic development, showing how modernization has often had negative effects on families and children. These three themes are developed in Chapter 3 and form the set of issues that constitute much of the historical narratives in the second half of the book.
This survey ends of issues and approaches completes Part I of
the book. Part II of Who Pays for the Kids? is an application
of these ideas to three regions - the United States, Northwestern
Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean. As an example of
the historical approach, the next section of these notes contains
a discussion of the development and changes in social security
in the United States.
Historical Example. Social Security Act in the United States
(Ch. 5, pp. 197-210).
This program became the cornerstone of social welfare in the United
States when it was legislated in 1935. It is still an essential
program in the United States, and attempts during the Reagan era
in the 1980s to limit the program and reduce benefits were beaten
back. Currently there are proposals to privatize the system and
turn the public program into compulsory private plans, but so
far this has not occurred. The issue of social security payroll
taxes, social security benefits, deficits and shortfalls in the
program, and inter-generational transfers are all being debated.
These issues are much the same as those being debated in Canada
currently in connection with the Canada/Quebec Pension Plan. Here
the issues of the viability of the plan, how much to tax, how
much to pay out, age at which to begin payout, deficits, and inter-generational
transfers are also being debated. In addition, issues related
to poverty of the elderly and the proper distribution of costs
and benefits for men and women are all at issue.
The U. S. plan had earlier precedents in pensions for veterans
and some other groups, and assistance to some mothers. These were
limited in amount, and often did not go to African-Americans.
In the U. S., such racial and ethnic differences and conflict
create a somewhat different history than in Europe and Canada.
Class unity across racial and ethnic lines was more difficult
to achieve than in European countries with a more homogeneous
working class. Folbre argues that one of the ways this was worked
out in the U. S. was that organization on the basis of age and
gender were somewhat more successful than in Europe. That is,
rather than the development of social welfare systems which would
be available to all, white people rallied around programs to assist
the elderly (p. 196). In addition, gender based movements sometimes
made major gains in obtaining financial support and in the political
arena. Women were less successful in attempts to redistribute
the cost of children. With respect to the latter, the argument
that a family wage existed meant that male household heads tended
to control household income (p. 196). Folbre notes that widows,
single mothers, unmarried women, and some racial and ethnic groups
suffered. More recently, the elderly have continued to improve
their situation, while child poverty expands.
The Social Security system is similar to the Canadian plan. It
is comprised of retirement insurance, based on employer and employee
contributions. This means that those with jobs (males and regularly
employed) build up a considerable fund to support themselves in
old age. Women and those with irregular employment or low wages
(often people of colour) have difficulty building up sufficient
retirement insurance to support themselves in old age. Various
other parts of the program provide special assistance to those
who are poor, disabled, or in need of medical care.
Married women without employment can obtain a reasonable retirement
income if their husbands had considerable earnings during the
husband's working years. Folbre argues that the social security
system subsidizes marriage, not non-market work. That is, those
women who work in the paid labour force and do equivalent work
to stay at home women may not receive any different retirement
income. In fact, if single or divorced women can only find jobs
with poor pay, they may actually get less than stay at home wives
(p. 199). Folbre also notes that benefits are not based on the
number of children, so that the system do not do a good job of
assisting in that aspect of social reproduction. The attractiveness
of the system means that the elderly, and those who stand to benefit
from it, may defend this system at the expense of other parts
of social welfare. Over the last thirty or so years, many elderly
have done very well as a result of this system, at the same time
as child poverty has increased and programs that are more directly
aimed at assisting children have been cut. Over the long term
this may undermine the viability of the Social Security system
In recent years, one problem that has received more attention
is the long term viability of the retirement system, given the
declining birth rate and the large number of elderly. The taxation
system is inequitable in that it is generally regressive (p. 207)
rather than progressive. In terms of the future, questions relate
to how these taxes are invested, what the future tax levels will
be, what will be the benefits, and who will do the work to support
the elderly. Questions concerning inter-generational transfers
become especially important. Future generations will have to take
care of their elderly, and the question is how and to what extent
they will do this.
Folbre also argues that families lose out relative to those without
children. The situation may be exacerbated as the elderly grow
in numbers and become politically more powerful. In addition,
with birth rates lower among whites than African-Americans, Hispanics,
and immigrant groups, at the political level there may be reduced
support for children.
Folbre notes that while some of these issues may be tackled by
neoclassical economists, and some are class issues, the clash
among other social categories may be more important as a way of
understanding the developments. Similar issues dominate the debate
At the end of Who Pays for the Kids? Folbre concludes that
individuals and societies should have a commitment to meeting
the costs of social reproduction. This means developing
rules, norms, and preferences consistent with this. It means
social programs that can assist in distributing these costs
equitably. It also means individual actions on the part
of both males and females to share the costs of social reproduction
Summary and Conclusions Concerning Folbre's Analysis
The above notes provide an overview of Who Pays for the Kids?
Following is a short summary of some of the main contributions
of and problems with the book.
Folbre, Nancy, Who Pays for the Kids? Gender and the Structures of Constraint, (New York, Routledge, 1994.
Picot, Garnett and John Myles, "Social Transfers, Changing Family Structure and Low Income Among Children, Canadian Public Policy, September 1996, pp. 244-267.
Vanier Institute, Profiling Canada's Families, Ottawa,
The Vanier Institute of the Family, 1994.
Internet References on Canadian Children and Family.
Canadian Council on Social
Articles from Statistics Canada,
Canadian Social Trends.
Child and Family Canada.
Robert Glossop on the Family.
Vanier Institute on the
Notes for February 10 class. Last edited on February 9, 1998.
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