Inequality Starts at Home

From an economic standpoint, will 2010 be the year of the woman? As part of the Roosevelt Institute's ongoing 'Feminomics' series, running on the New Deal 2.0 blog, I was asked to reflect on women's changing roles in the economy. Here's my take on the need to update economic models of the family.

Family structure in the United States magnifies class-based inequality and undermines the human capital of the next generation. Yet, the ideas that helped secure a Nobel Prize in economics for Chicago economist Gary Becker still provide the starting point for every discussion of the economics of the family, and if followed, would produce an economy that looks like Yemen's.

Becker won the Nobel Prize at least in part because of his identification of marriage with specialization and trade: men "specialize" in the market and women in the home. His critical prediction: with the wholesale movement of women into the labor market, the gains from marriage would decline and family instability would rise. Yet, it is the blue states -- and the families who combine dual careers with egalitarian relationships -- that show the biggest drop in divorce rates and brightest spots in in a failing economy.

Becker cannot explain these results because he confused efficiency with domination -- and failed to see the advantages of ending it. Men do not specialize in the commodity "husband;" they specialize in particular jobs. The idea that women "specialize" in the home is even loonier -- the female homemaker is the very epitome of the generalist. When I have students list a Beckerian wife's functions, they describe over 20 diverse activities (From Partners to Parents: The Second Revolution in Family Law).

More critically, the factors associated with domestic "specialization" -- less educated women, lack of external income, marriage at younger ages, and more children -- produce less power in relationships. As Nicholas Kristof writes in his inspiring accounts of women from the developing world, give women just a bit more education and independence and they leave or reform abusive mates, producing healthier children and a more productive society.

In our society, the states and families that have prospered most dramatically are those rejecting the Beckerian model and investing in women's education and independence. Paul Amato shows that over the last twenty years it is well educated, two career families that have shown the greatest gains in family stability, while those who have suffered the greatest losses are the ones clinging to traditional family roles without the ability to find the high paying male jobs that make them work.

In contrast, the states that have tried to bring back Becker's specialized family -- those insisting on abstinence-only education, the shot gun marriage, and declining access to family planning -- simply insure the U.S.'s declining economic competitiveness. Teenage girls in the red states that place single-minded emphasis on marriage are MORE likely than their blue state sisters to have sex and get pregnant, marry early and get divorced, stop going to school and go to work, and end up raising their children in poverty (read more in Naomi Cahn and June Carbone's Red Families v. Blue Families).

This post originally appeared on New Deal 2.0.