Hidden-nomics (3)

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Proverbs 31:10-31

Epilogue: The Wife of Noble Character

10 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. 11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. 12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. 13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands. 14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar. 15 She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants. 16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. 17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. 18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. 19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. 20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. 21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. 22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes. 25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. 27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. 28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: 29 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.” 30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. 31 Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

 

This is a doubly-hidden one! First because the material (passage) was derived from the Bible, the most widely read book as per the Guinness World Records webpage; but whose content is more acknowledged for its spiritual (and sometimes historical) ideas and not so much for the socio-economic issues it might present.

Second, because the concept of Family Economics has only started to develop (along with mainstream economics) in the 1960’s. In my experience, this branch has always been included in development economics analysis (population control, decisions for migration, Dependency Law, urban and rural development etc…) but I haven’t come across any material speaking solely of the subject. Hence, it occurred to me that this could be a thought-provoking way to discuss it.

Author’s Note: I especially love the selected passage because I felt as if it places woman as a man’s “equal”* in terms of providing, protecting and maintaing a household.

Given the nature of the selected material- where the subject is a wife to a husband- this post will not include single-parent households in the discussion.

The terms “family” and “household” are used indistinctively to maintain simplicity.

The Wife of Noble Character in Family Economics

According to the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute, “The family is the first and foremost influence on an individual’s success. Family choices about how much to invest in a child’s well-being and education are critical to building a strong, skilled workforce that drives a healthy economy.

The authors of the aforementioned Bible passage must have known this to be a fact. And their message was probably conceived to help guarantee that increase in their population will not only to satisfy their requirement for numbers, but also their need of high-quality citizens. For this aim, they encouraged the building of a strong nation starting from the choice of a virtuous life partner with whom to establish the basic unit of the society- the family.

Below are few of the economics-based perspectives used to examine this part of the Book of Proverbs.

Marriages as firms

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In Gary Becker’s “A theory of marriage”, he assumes that marriage occurs only if the future husband and wife could derive an increase in utility or satisfaction because of this new partnership. One way to achieve this (and this is really a simplification) is by considering that men and women hire each other’s work for household production. Becker attributes this to the strict complementarity of their resources (time) wherein no production will be attained if one of the couple’s contribution is nul (0).

The Bible’s ideal wife seems to possess enough common sense and strength in character to be a desirable complement in implementing the “household-building” project. She is described to be one who is capable of work both in and outside the boundaries of the household. Fairly enough, verses 28-31 summon the husband and the children to praise her for all her works.

Although recognition is a wonderful acknowledgement of one’s efforts, practicality still dominates reality. It must be mentioned therefore, that the production of women who are dedicated to homemaking is still not recognized as a contributor to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Now, due to this gap in the valuation of production, feminists argue that where a woman takes on the role of a housewife, she is exploited just as a worker is exploited by a capitalist (in this case, the husband).

The concept of exploitation arises when one party takes advantage of the other; but i) when both are properly rewarded for their production, and ii) both possess a shared authority to decide about resource allocation, no exploitation takes place. In the case of the family, husband and wife will be likewise benefitting from a fair collaboration and the pooling of talents and other scarce resources. So the way I see things is that the perceived exploitation may come from the fact that a housewife is not yet systematically compensated for her long hours of work and dedicated service. This is because as of the moment, her contribution to the family has not been given a monetary value as opposed to the husband’s salary** (thus making it seem that housewives “don’t do as much” for the family when compared with a working husband’s monthly payroll).

Think about how some people pay for services such as babysitting, house-cleaning, pet-walking, gardening, food catering, etc… The service providers are simply specializing in tasks that housewives have to do everyday, and in theory they are in no way exploited because they get a just compensation for the job they render (as prices are set by the markets of babysitting, pet-walking, catering and so on). This logic could be thoroughly applied to the sum of a homemakers’ completed tasks, dismissing a priori the concept of exploitation***.

Division of Labor in the Family

Practically from verses 12-27, the division of labor between husband and wife could be considered quite progressive. The verse has clearly expanded the roles a married woman (and an ideal one, too!) can play in a society: food gatherer, business woman and even an investor! She is also depicted as someone who can perform physical labor and work requiring creativity and imagination.

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How wonderful for women to be considered as an equally able provider and decision-maker in the family as a man! The reality, however displays details that make the difference. Consider a family and career woman who works hard everyday to earn a living and to boost her ambitions: After her working day ends, how often is she expected to do a bigger part of the household chores? “Mostly” would be a good guess (although it must be admitted that this trend is currently changing). It could be because of tradition; or maybe if she has a lower salary, it has been deemed “fair” for her to be in charge of the “affairs of her household”. No matter what the reason, it does seem that a family woman- with or without a paid employment- never stops working. Perhaps after knowing this now, the idea about women’s exploitation (as in, being taken advantage of) in our society is not so dubious anymore.

Decision-making in the family

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The noble-charactered wife is described by the Bible as someone willing and able to allocate resources without mentioning the need of her husband’s permission (which is different from opinion). She is supposed to apply her own criteria to ensure not only that the members of the household are well-provided for, but also to guarantee peace and harmony in the shared space (she provides… portions for her female servants), safety (her lamp does not go out at night), health (When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.) and it goes without saying that she is in charge of the general state of the home (She watches over the affairs of her household).
Again, according to Gary Becker, what the Bible considers a noble wife is the “altruistic” member of the family. That is, someone who takes into account the welfare of the other members of the household, thus benefitting the entire unit. Empirical studies have apparently proven that not all households have at least one altruistic member, but the University of the United Nations shares a theoretical conclusion that shows the opposite:
“Income in the hands of women has effects on household expenditure that differ from those of income in the hands of men (Thomas 1990, 1992; Hoddinot and Haddad 1991; Engle 1993). Income in the hands of women is associated with a larger increase in the share of the household budget devoted to human capital. The inputs and outcomes measuring human capital in various studies have included household services, health and education, leisure and recreation, as well as more quantitative and biological measurements of child height, weight for height, immunizations, survival, and nutrient intake. In theory at least, this finding implies that increases in employment opportunities for women will have a greater positive effect on child welfare (Folbre 1992) than similar increases for men.”

Other interesting findings from the University of United Nations:

  • Actual earning power or economic profitability to the family of women in the current generation influences the allocation of food, health, and educational resources to female children (the next generation).
  • Poor women household heads with low incomes will make great personal sacrifices to achieve favourable child outcomes (Bruce and Lloyd 1992). These studies, however, have been done in societies where such women are highly dependent on their children for future support.

Gender Issues

From an empirical point of view, there exists a great amount of pressure for wives to fit the society’s idea of “Super Woman” or “Super Wife” or “Super Mother”. How often have we judged a fellow woman when she does things differently in her house, with her children, in her relationship with her husband…?

This is not to say that the Bible passage encourages this animosity, but it did mention the additional responsibilities of wives which are: to make sure that she keeps herself good-looking (she is clothed in fine linen and purple), interesting (She speaks with wisdom; does not eat the bread of idleness) and it is implied that she has half of the responsibility for upholding the family honor (Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land).

This is all and well because the passage is supposedly talks about what an ideal wife is, but it would be wonderful for everyone to understand that such an ideal wife is exactly that- an idea.

This is to say then, that the real, live, breathing wives or women who are future wives are a work in progress. They need encouraging, they will fail some days but will triumph on more and they certainly do their best to fulfill their duties…  just like the real, live, breathing husbands or men who will be husbands in the future.

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 -the end-

*From what I’ve observed, most people shy away from reading the Bible because of some prejudiced concepts against women.

**When I suggested this in class one day, a Marxist classmate (may he rest in peace) asked me with a little bit of indignance: what kind of society would I like my children to grow up in, where a mother’s “love” is to be measured monetarily. He also asked whether I would be willing to turn something supposedly “humane” and priceless into another service or merchandise that could be exchanged at a given fee. Now older and myself a mother and housewife, I get the inkling that assigning a monetary value to a housewife’s production could be a way to start equating a woman’s salary to that of a man’s. After all (and this is not to agree with the neoliberals, but one has to know how to play this game) if a woman’s choice to leave the labor market and focus on caring for her family is one factor that widens the gender pay gap, why not continue giving measurable value to what she would do in her house? This way, there would be no vaccuum within her professional history because she would still be considered “productive”. And those years of being a homemaker would actually be considered as added experience in her curriculum.

***This presents a hole in the modern study of economics and I believe it is worth a deeper analysis. Women (and in some cases, men) who shift from being a paid professional to a homemaker do not necessarily become rusty and obsolete when it comes to all their skills. By channeling their efforts towards accomplishing a different kind of objective, they develop other abilities and could also be strengthening those that they already possess. For instance, an accountant-turned-housewife after years out of practice could turn outmoded in the latest software used in her field, but surely she has gained better organization and time management skills.

Sources:

  1. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+31%3A10-31&version=ESV
  2. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians%205:22-33
  3. http://www2.um.edu.uy/acid/family_economics/family%20economics%20and%20macro%20behaviour.pdf
  4. http://www.nber.org/papers/w9232.pdf
  5. http://www.nber.org/chapters/c2970.pdf
  6. http://archive.unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/uu13se/uu13se04.htm
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_economics
  8. https://bfi.uchicago.edu/initiative/economics-family
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