Sociology 304

Notes for February 9, 1999

Overview of Who Pays for the Kids?


1. Introduction

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? These will be some of the issues that we will discuss in the second part of the semester.

Folbre presents material on these issues in two parts - with a set of theoretical arguments and models in Chapters 1-3 and with some historical examples in Chapters 4-6. The first two theoretical models presented are those of neoclassical economics and of Marxian political-economic theory. A discussion and critique of these is followed by a feminist model which incorporates elements of neoclassical and Marxian theory, along with contributions from feminism and other new social movements. The composite model that Folbre develops is useful for analyzing issues related to social reproduction and may also provide insights into social issues more generally. The historical examples provide a summary view of how changes in fertility, social policy, social assistance, care for the aged, and social insurance developed in Northern and Western Europe, in the United States, and in the Caribbean and Latin America. A conclusion follows in Chapter 7.

In terms of reading this book, read the Introduction and the first chapter. If the material in Chapter 1 proves to be unfamiliar or difficult, read one of the historical chapters first (Ch. 4-6), and then return to Chapters 1-3. I will go through some of the materials in Chapters 1-3 in more detail in the lectures, but this will take some time. I do not expect you to read all of the historical examples, so pick one of Chapters 4-6 and become familiar with it. This will provide some examples to attach to the theoretical arguments in the first three chapters. For your second term paper, one of the topics will be to pick one historical or current example related to social reproduction or social policy. For this paper, you could use examples from one of the historical chapters in Chapter 4-6. In the paper you will be expected to discuss how Folbre's approach can be used to analyze this example.

As we proceed through Who Pays for the Kids? I will also make suggestions concerning which parts you could skip and which parts are most important. The Introduction and Chapter 1 are important in setting the stage for Folbre's argument, and the first part of Chapter 2 is also quite useful. In terms of paper topics, I will provide more details next week, but set of topics relate to Canadian social policy, for example the current discussions concerning the Canadian social union. In my notes, I will provide some references to web sites or other sources that deal with issues such as pensions, child and family poverty, and related Canadian social issues.

2. Folbre

Nancy Folbre is an economist at the University of Massachusetts. Being an economist, she approaches social issues from an economic perspective and her analysis is concerned primarily with economic issues. At the same time, she is very critical or traditional approaches to economics, and her method of analysis overlaps with sociological methods and deals with similar concerns to those of sociologists. As a result, she is social theorist as well as an economic theorist. Folbre is 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 and The War on the Poor: A Defense Manual. More information about her publications and interests are available at her website.

Who Pays for the Kids? begins with a discussion and critique of economic models of society. While sociologists may sometimes consider these limiting, they contain many insights into human behaviour in economic settings. In recent years, economists have also attempted to use their assumptions, methods, and models to discuss and analyze issues beyond the strictly economic - for example, marriage and the family, childbearing, organizational and group structures, social policy, etc. In Chapter 1, Folbre shows how these models attempt to explain the sexual division of labour in the home and the economy, and the low fertility rate in industrialized countries. Some of these latter applications venture into areas that are more the preserve of sociologists or political scientists. But the latter have often borrowed from economic models as well. The neoclassical economic models have generally been considered the dominant form of economic models, and you should be able to see some of the similarities of the assumptions and methods of these models to the liberal political model that we discussed in the first part of the class.

The Marxian economic model may be somewhat more familiar to sociology students, although Folbre initially deals more with Marx's political-economic model than with his more sociological analysis. Then she discusses some of the ways that Marxists explain the sexual division of labour and economic inequalities between men and women.

Following a discussion of each of these models, Folbre shows how both the neoclassical economists and Marxian theorists have revised their models in recent years. These models may have worked well in an earlier era, but in contemporary society, with dramatic changes in political and social structures, rapid technological change, greater interdependence within and among societies, new social movements, and new ways in which people relate to each other, each of these two approaches needed modification. Each of the neoclassical and Marxian theoretical approaches has attempted to stay current by modifying its approach, and while Folbre is sympathetic to the changes, she also considers the newly modified models to be limited in terms of their explanatory power. In the last part of Chapter 1, and through Chapters 2 and 3, Folbre introduces insights from feminist approaches to social analysis and from the new social movements that have developed in recent years. Near the end of Chapter 1, she develops what she terms a "stylized feminist approach." This theoretical approach is not just feminist, but combines elements from all of the different theoretical approaches. She expands on this model in Chapters 2 and 3, and uses this model as a framework for analyzing the historical examples in the second portion of the book. .

Folbre's developed her theoretical approach in part to analyze issues of social reproduction and social policy. However, the approach she develops should prove useful in social analysis more generally, and for examining and developing an explanation for and understanding of a variety of political, economic, and social issues in contemporary society. Three of the contributions of Folbre in Who Pays for the Kids? are:

 3. The General Approach of Who Pays for the Kids?

The concerns Folbre expresses in Who Pays for the Kids? have to do with children, family, and household, with relationships between males and females, and among different chosen or given (ascribed) groups. She is also concerned with issues of equity and distribution across generations, an issue that is especially of concern with respect to public pension plans and social security. More specifically, Folbre examines:

  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 in general, and
  4. the relations between men and women, and between the family and other social institutions. In particular, Folbre provides an analysis of inequities that exist between men and women, across groups, and between generations, and she argues for eliminating such inequities.

On page 1 of the Introduction, Folbre makes three claims which are the organizing principles of the book:

  • 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? And how can a feminist and new social movements approach improve on the explanations of these more traditional approaches.

  • Claim 2. "Both production and reproduction are shaped by diverse forms of collective action" (p. 1). That is, Folbre's analysis is not simply structural, but recognizes agency - either in an individual or group form. A large part of Chapter 2 is concerned with how people form themselves into groups. She does not take the answer of Marxists, that the relevant groups are social classes, as sufficient to explain group action.

  • 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). These historical narratives constitute the second half of the book.

  • 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

    These issues form a large part of contemporary sociology and Folbre's analysis moves beyond the strictly economic, constructing a basis for a theoretical approach that can be used to examine many issues and forms of institutional change 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 through 1970s, these policies and programs have helped support families economically, but they now are under attack by neoconservative interests and those with particular views of what are appropriate family and household structures. Folbre's analysis may be useful in providing insights into how social policy is developed and how social change occurs.

    4. Summary of Folbre's Arguments

    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. In terms of a specific issues around which the theoretical can be examined, Folbre notes that females have primary responsibility for caring for children and devoting resources to children. She asks why this happens and what the answer of neoclassical economics and of Marxian political economy might be.

    a. REM - Neoclassical Economics. 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. The neoclassical models are the ones that dominate economics textbooks, especially the micro theory textbooks, with supply and demand analysis and cost and indifference curves. REM is also the economic counterpart of the male citizen of classical liberal political theory. Just as Kymlicka argued that this male political actor is part of some group (perhaps the nation), so Folbre would argue that this male economic actor exists within an institutional and structural setting.

    The answer of neoclassical economics to Folbre's questions concerning who has primary responsibility for child care is that this is an element of choice. There are several reasons why choices are made in this manner:

    b. Mr. Prol - the Marxian Approach. In opposition to the REM model 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. For Mr. Prol, social class provides constraints and limits on economic choices. At the same time, the proletarian class will provide the means to overcome capitalism and create socialism. As a result, it is in the interests of individual proletarians to combine with other proletarians and build the strength of the proletarian class.

    The Marxist view concerning issues relating to children and the family and the sexual division of labour originates in the writing of Friedrich Engels. Engels argued that the women are treated inequitably within capitalism and it is only by achieving socialism that such sex based inequalities can end. He argued that this inequality originally emerged when private property developed. Private property was associated with male control over females, females became property, and a system of patriarchy emerged. One of the reasons for this was an attempt by males to ensure the legitimacy of heirs, and this gave males an incentive to control women's sexuality (Folbre, p. 31). This system of male power over females 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 will be true equality of males and females.

    c. Feminist Critique of Neoclassical and Marxian Approach. In Chapter 1, Folbre introduces a number of criticisms that can be leveled against the above approaches. Some of these are as follows.

    d. Questions from Contemporary Theory. 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.

  • For Canada, we might substitute ethnicity for race, and we probably should add region to nation. There might be other bases for group identification as well. Remember that Max Weber's approach raises the possibility of many other bases for social action and group formation. In particular, why do females sometimes identify themselves on the basis of gender, at other times with their class or age?
  • e. Composite Feminist Approach

    In the first chapter of Who Pays for the Kids? Folbre considers each of the first two 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, what strategies are adopted, and what forms of collective action develop are important in analyzing the structure of 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.

    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.

    For example, consider claim 2 from p. 1: "Both production and reproduction are shaped by diverse forms of collective action." 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 through their effects on costs of production and reproduction, they have affected the structure and location of population, industrial enterprises, and other institutions. 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.

    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 - these rules and norms dictating that women must stay in the household and not enter more public forms of activity. How individuals decide which group identity to adopt in these circumstances is a question that is especially of interest for Folbre.

    Strategies of Collective Action. Some of the considerations relating to how individuals enter into collective action are as follows.

     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 any other in a 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.

    Patriarchal Power. In Chapter 3, Folbre's concerns are more recognizable as feminist. That is, she attempts to explain the persistence of patriarchal power 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 been associated with 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.

    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.

    5. 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, http://www.statcan. ca:80/english/ads/11-008-XIE/allcontents.html Canadian Social Trends . Robert Glossop on the Family Vanier Institute on the Family

    Notes for February 9 class. Last edited on February 14, 1999.

    Back to Sociology 304 - Winter, 1999.