Sociology 304

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 consciousness.

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:

  1. Individual and collective agents, and agency or action;
  2. Processes or forms of social action and interaction;
  3. Inequalities and power differences that structure actions and processes, and that are a consequence of the actions and processes.

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 social life.

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 of choice.

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 or workplace.

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 payroll taxes.

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 transfers.

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 poverty.

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 (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.

C. Summary of Folbre's Analysis

D. Conclusion

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

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