Sociology 304

February 10, 1998 Notes

Summary of Nancy Folbre, Who Pays for the Kids?

A. Background

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 Kids?

1. Folbre.

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 and The War on the Poor: A Defense Manual. More information about her publications and interests are available at her website.

2. General Approach

The concerns Folbre expresses in Who Pays for the Kids? have to do with

  1. the way in which families are structured and care of children takes place in contemporary society,
  2. how the costs of socialization and caring for children are distributed,
  3. whether there can be ways of improving the care and raising of children, so that there is less child poverty and reduced poverty, and
  4. the relations between men and women, and between the family and other social institutions.

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 and oppressed.

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 developed.

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 follows.

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 for Folbre.

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 concerning difference.

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 applications.

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 (p. 200).

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 in Canada.

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 equitably.

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 Development.

Articles from Statistics Canada, Canadian Social Trends.

Child and Family Canada.

Robert Glossop on the Family.

Vanier Institute on the Family

Notes for February 10 class. Last edited on February 9, 1998.

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