March 17, 1998
Who Pays for the Kids? - Conclusion and Review
Note: The following notes come after the notes "Folbre's
Feminist Approach" that were not covered in class.
Collective Action and the Structures of Constraint
Folbre's approach begins with structures in Chapter 1, but her
aim is also to explain how individual and collective action occur.
In Chapter 2, Folbre's approach provides a way of examining agency
and structure and shows how they might be integrated. She uses
this approach as a way of illustrating the historical experiences
in various regions (Ch. 4 - 6).
A. Agency and Structure
1. Background. In contemporary sociology, agency and
structure are often examined together in an attempt to resolve
what appears to be a dual approach.
a. Structure. Many sociologists have emphasized the dominance
of structures in human action, with Marx, Durkheim, Parsons,
and much of critical theory concentrating on large, comprehensive
aspects of society such as class, division of labour, mode of
production, economic structures, systems and culture. These appear
to provide strict limits to the range of possible human choice
and action. Collective action is more possible than individual
action in the Marxian approach, but even the forms of collective
action are severely constrained in terms of timing, place, and
b. Agency. At the same time, individuals do exercise choice,
are involved in social action and interaction, and
explicit coercion is relatively limited in contemporary North
American and European society. The active agent is recognized
in theoretical approaches such as neoclassical economics, liberalism,
symbolic interaction, ethnomethodology, and Weber's theory of
social action. These approaches tend to deal with individual action
and interaction, considering these to be constrained but also
subject to considerable individual variation and choice.
c. Integration. Some contemporary sociologists such as
Giddens, Bourdieu, and Habermas attempt to deal with this apparent
contradiction or duality. One way to integrate these is to note
that all of the structures, agencies, actions, and interactions
are human actions or activities, or products of these. That is,
social structures do not emerge separately from the actions and
interactions of individual people and groups. It is these actions
that create the structures, and the repeated actions and interactions
of humans perpetuates the structures. In doing this the structures
and systems can also change over time. Thus agency and structure
are integrated in practice, and the issue is how to deal with
this integration theoretically.
d. Folbre Approach. While Folbre does not provide a complete
explanation of agency and structure, her approach to action provides
one means of dealing with this apparent problem. Her historical
examples also illustrate how what appear to be theoretical conflicts
are worked out in practice. The common actions of large numbers
of people create the norms, preferences, and structures that characterize
contemporary society. These structural aspects can be considered
to be outside influences imposed on people (dominant ideologies,
class structures, advertising and cultural control by media conglomerates),
but it is the daily activities of people that reproduce and recreate
these. The structures of (collective) constraint (pp. 57-58) are
common positions that create common actions - recreating these
structures, although in modified form.
The following notes discuss aspects of agency and structure, primarily from Chapters 2 and 3 of Who Pays for the Kids? The major features of Folbre's analysis are organized into three parts:
2. Agents and Agency. In the neoclassical economic approach,
these are individuals and firms or enterprises, each facing constraints
but also able to exercise a very considerable range of choices.
In the Marxist approach, agents are primarily social classes,
collectivities in which the individual has little choice concerning
membership (especially in the case of the working class and petty
bourgeoisie), and whose conflictual forms of action are primary
determinants of the course of history.
In Folbre's aproach, there are both individual and collective
agents. Some of the collective agents are given groups such
as social class, gender, and nation. Others are chosen groups,
chosen on the basis of class, gender, age, race, nation, or sexual
preference, or on combinations of these. For Folbre, one of the
main issues is why these factors become important bases for collective
identity, and why, in certain circumstances, collective action
can emerge from groups organized on the basis of these factors.
There may also be other chosen groups such as environmental groups,
militia and survivalist groups, or religious institutions (p.
49), although Folbre does not examine these.
Note that these agents and forms of action are connected to the
sites (p. 47) of her approach, in that the institutions where
agents act are the sites. Note though that the collective actions
and forms of strategic behaviour are not limited to specific sites,
but operate in many sites. Institutions are collective ways that
people have of dealing with social issues and problems. These
institutions often represent strategies for maintaining and improving
Folbre generally organizes her discussion around six different factors or dimensions of identity and interest:
Folbre notes that this list is not exhaustive (p. 49) but these
are the main groupings that enter her analysis. She develops an
analysis of the "collective identity, interests, and actions"
(p. 49) of these groupings. It is this analysis that constitutes
one of Folbre's main contributions, looking at the bases for collective
identity and action of a variety of groupings, and developing
a unified framework for analyzing these.
Folbre defines the construction of the six social categories as "structures of (collective) constraint." These are
a set of assets, rules, norms, and preferences that fosters group identity and creates common group interests. It generates patterns of allegiance and encourages forms of strategic behavior based on social constructions of difference. (p. 57, bottom).
Since these involve groups, they must be collective. The groups
can be given or assigned at birth (social class) or they can be
developed and chosen groups. There would seem to be three main
features to these groups.
a. Constraints. First is the set of constraints.
See pp. 55-58. Each social category is defined by a set of assets,
rules, norms, and preferences which define the boundaries or realm
i. Example. On p. 55, Folbre shows how women could constitute a group, defined on the basis of gender. Another example could be an ethnic or racial group that suffers from discrimination or deprivation. Other than having labour power, many of their assets may be nonexistent or negative. There may be formal equality in that the written laws and rules may apply to this group in the same way as the rest of the population. At the same time, norms concerning how others treat this group may reflect bias and discrimination, or there may be views about what this group can best do (e.g. run restaurants or do domestic work). In addition, the preferences of the group, concerning culture and religion may differ considerably from the mainstream, although in other aspects the preferences of members of the ethnic group may be no different than that of the general population (housing, consumer goods, etc). No single one of assets, rules, norms, or preferences defines the group or the collective identity of the group, but the group definition is multidimensional.
ii. Power or Constraint? Another factor that is associated
with group definition is how others view the group. Outsiders
may define the group, and this is often done on the basis of power
relationships, by those who have superior assets or power. Folbre
discusses power as one factor that can define the group, but considers
the constraints as better at explaining the agency-structure relationship
and collective identity (p. 54). But power may just be the other
side of constraint, with what is a constraint for one being a
source of power for others. For example, male power and authority
in a patriarchal setting mean constraints for women and children.
Discrimination means power for the discriminator and constraint
for those who are discriminated against.
iii. Identity? Individuals who in objective circumstances
appear to be part of the group may not identify with the group,
may feel that their identity is primarily with some other group,
or may consider themselves primarily as individuals. For example,
individuals may identify themselves as working class, or as women
or men. There may be multiple positions in which the individual
is involved, with the possibility that some of these are contradictory
positions (pp. 55-59). Folbre notes how complex these relationships
may be, and how individuals in seemingly similar structural positions
can develop quite different identities.
b. Allegiances. A second aspect in defining groups is the
importance of allegiances in fostering group identity and difference
(p. 58). Individual self-interest and the resulting actions based
on assets and rules would create quite unstable groups, especially
with individuals occupying multiple positions, and with the possibility
of the free rider problem. A way in which a collective identity
is developed is through common actions and activities, and similar
norms and preferences. These allegiances may be subjective feelings
of identity, or they could become more structured through the
development of common norms and preferences. When these norms
are strong, individuals generally adhere to them, and may view
them as desirable and important. When this happens, allegiances
and commitments help define these groups, and allegiance is important
for group stability. Folbre notes how men may still enjoy certain
economic advantages as a result of patriarchy (p. 59), and white
people of European background may also enjoy similar advantages
over people of colour in much of North America. Those with advantages
may consider maintaining allegiances with other similar individuals
as a means of maintaining this privilege and power. In the first
part of the semester, Kymlicka's analysis showed the importance
of allegiances and culture.
c. Strategic Behaviour. The third feature that Folbre points to is forms and patterns of strategic behaviour of the social category or group. These may be a means of furthering allegiances and consolidating the identity and cohesiveness of the group. Examples could include:
It should also be noted that the structures of constraint are
simultaneously structures of opportunity (middle of p. 64). That
is, structures are not just limiting or constraining factors,
but the same structures which potentially limit people also create
opportunities for people. Examples include institutions such as
education, socialization of children (p. 62), and bureaucracy
d. Differences from Other Analyses. The above approach to agency and structure includes many elements common to other approaches. At the same time, some of the ways in which Folbre's analysis differs from that of other approaches are:
i. Range of Groups. This approach covers a wide range of types of groups - chosen or given, and with any of gender, race, nation, class, age, or sexual preference as a basis.
ii. Multidimensional. There are not just assigned groups or class, but a variety of different bases on which the action could take place, and coalitions developed. (p. 55 - multidimensional structures). These might even be competing or contradictory sets of interests, so that "identity politics" need not be unidimensional, although it is often treated as such.
iii. Not just asset based. That is, much more than property or skin colour is necessary to consider how collective identity and action take place. Norms and preferences are important aspects of this.
iv. Social implications. It is not just the site or institution over which group identity makes it effects felt. Rather, if the social category is meaningful and important in collective identity, its effects are felt widely. For example, patriarchy or racism exert their influence in both production and reproduction.
v. Social structures. Some of the common structures that sociology considers to exist may best be identified as combinations of structures of constraint, e.g. patriarchy or racism (p. 59). These are not necessarily single social structures or features, but develop as a result of different combinations, and might be changed in different ways. For example, racism once meant that white people of European origin viewed themselves as superior, and limited immigration of non-Europeans into the country. Today, the manner in which racism is expressed is different, and perhaps education and multicultural activities can be a means of solving with some aspects of this. Folbre's point is that there are different meanings for racism and patriarchy as the structures of constraint change.
In addition, different historical circumstances lead to quite
different identities and social categories. There is no simple
set of historical laws of motion that can be universally applied.
While this approach may be more difficult to carry out, it leads
to a more historical and concrete analysis. In this approach,
simple formulae concerning class struggle or views concerning
the natural interests of the working class should not be applied.
This also means that terms like patriarchy or racism may mean
quite different things in different circumstances, and broad categorizations
of these may be misleading.
3. Processes or manner and mechanisms of action. Folbre
could develop approaches to these more fully. But in pointing
out that action is guided by a variety of processes other than
rational self-interest, she makes a major contribution. It is
not just individualistic economic self-interest, or a set of rational
collective interests such as well developed class consciousness
that guide individuals and groups.
a. Range of processes. Folbre describes a range of possible processes. Some of these are as follows.
i. Selfish, individual, utility-maximizing behaviour of neoclassical economics.
ii. Exchange and competition as in the neoclassical or Marxist model.
iii. Altruism, cooperation and coordination. These are common forms of human behaviour and exist among friends, within the family, with other individuals and social groups. Note that cooperation and coordination at some level are necessary for exchange, competition, and pursuit of self-interest to occur.
iv. Coercion, conflict, and bargaining. Marxism, neo-marxist, and IRSEP emphasize some of these features.
Each individual and collective action and social interaction involves
different combinations of these, with interpretations of the situation
leading to different emphases on different processes.
b. Coalitions and alliances (p. 83) during revolutions
or periods of dramatic change may play an especially important
role in particular historical situations. While nationalism or
anti-imperialism may often be considered to be the driving force
of such movements, Folbre notes that successful movements often
involve "some combination of nation, race, class, and gender"
(p. 83) and these reinforce each other. The implication of this
argument is that single issue movements may stand less chance
of success, and may lead to inequities in other social categories.
For example, class struggles may hurt women or the aged; exclusively
feminist struggles may ignore racial inequalities; and ethnic
or national struggles may lead to class or gender inequities.
c. Divided Loyalties. Folbre discusses divided loyalties
on pp. 68-69, noting how the elderly may be more interested in
preserving pensions, rather than furthering class or gender interests.
White males may be exploited, and white females more so, but when
faced with competition from people of colour or immigrants, the
former may identify with the prevailing system and structures.
Folbre implies that this is not necessarily false consciousness,
but represent purposeful choice and decisions based on "perception
of common purpose and shared identities" (bottom of p. 69).
d. Rights and obligations. Folbre notes that social science
needs a better theory of obligation (pp. 61-62). She argues that
equal rights should be accompanied by equal obligations. This
is especially the case in dealing with issues related to children
and dependents. One of Folbre's main conclusions is that family
labour has been undervalued, leading to inequities in the distribution
of the costs of children. She concludes that both parents, and
perhaps all adults, need to take greater responsibilities for
social reproduction (p. 91).
4. Inequalities and power differentials. Why are some groups
more powerful than others, what are bad structures, what is the
meaning of equal opportunity? (pp. 61-66). Inequalities are often
connected to structures or are said to be structures, e.g. the
inequality of ownership of property constitutes the origin and
basis of class structures and class conflict.
Equality of opportunity requires equal assets and rules, but this
still leaves the problem of norms and preferences (p. 63).
Note that with the multi-systems approach, individual or group
can simultaneously be oppressed and oppressor (pp. 52 - 53).
For Folbre, there are intermediate level structures, between
the individual and institution and the mode of production (p.
51). These might be structures such as patriarchy, age structures
(parents/children, adults/elderly), or ethnic and racial structures
that may interact with class and region.
B. Historical Example. Social Security in the United States
(Ch. 5, pp. 197-210).
This program became the cornerstone of social welfare in the United
States since the time it was legislated in 1935. Developed in
the Great Depression of the 1930s, when there was widespread unemployment
and poverty, the aim of the program was to provide a social safety
net that would prevent older and disabled Americans from being
completely destitute. The program was revised many times, but
the essential components of the system remain much the same as
when it was first set up - to establish a system of social insurance
with widespread coverage. Contributions to the program came in
the form of a payroll tax, jointly paid by employees and employers.
Initially the tax rate was 1 per cent for each of employers and
employees, but this has increased over the years to around a total
of 12 per cent by the 1990s. The funds collected go into a trust
fund. Those eligible for payments are retired people over age
65, disabled people, the unemployed in some states, and survivors
of deceased workers. Attached to the social insurance program
are other programs such as Medicaid, supplementary benefits for
the needy, and some aid to families with dependent children. The
program has greatly widened its coverage, so that many more employees
have been included in the program.
Social security is still an essential social insurance program
in the United States. It has proved very popular, and provides
a basic source of income to many elderly and disabled. Without
the program, poverty rates among the elderly would be much greater.
Attempts by the federal government during the Reagan era in the
1980s to limit the program and reduce benefits were not popular
and the main aspects of the program continued, although with higher
Currently there are proposals to privatize the Social Security
system by developing individually controlled retirement savings
accounts, much like RRSPs in Canada. This would turn the public
social insurance program into compulsory private plans. To date,
these are merely proposals, but ones that have achieved considerably
authority among policymakers. Debates are also occurring over
the level of social security payroll taxes, social security benefits,
deficits and shortfalls in the program, and inter-generational
In Canada, the issues are much the same, with debates on the future
of th 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, state unemployment insurance, 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 created 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).
Folbre also notes that gender based movements sometimes made major
gains in the political arena and in obtaining financial support.
Women were less successful in attempts to redistribute the cost
of children, and generally had to continue bearing this themselves.
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 a lot in these
circumstances. One of the long term results of the Social Security
program was that the elderly have continued to improve their situation,
while child poverty expands. That is not to say that all the elderly
are well off, but social insurance programs such as Social Security
have generally been reasonably successful in reducing old age
The Social Security system is similar to the Canada/Quebec pension
plan, with payments made to retirees, based on the extent of prior
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, and these latter parts are the social insurance aspect of
the system. That is, in return for paying premiums during working
years, each contributor is assured a reasonable payout upon retirement.
Those who pay in more also receive more, but all contributors
receive a certain minimum payment.
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 does 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
C. Summary of Folbre's Analysis
In the last chapter 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. Social programs that
can assist in distributing these costs equitably need to be developed.
On the part of both individual males and females, this means efforts
to share the costs of social reproduction equitably.
Notes for March 17, 1998. Last edited on March 17, 1998
Back to Sociology 304 home page.