Cover Story

Domestic partners

IT'S NOT WHAT YOU THINK: Marriage is also an economic union, and the divorce of work and home has had a devastating effect on the family. A look at the economic history of marriage, and some proposals that might restore the balance

Issue: "Marriage and the family," May 20, 2000

It's a powerful union. The secular foundation of marriage has always been the pairing of the sexual and the economic. In becoming "one flesh," a man and a woman gained a social license to procreate and also create new wealth; their new household was a fresh productive enterprise. Each brought certain skills and strengths to their economic union, a division of labor that lifted their marriage into something greater than the sum of its parts. But that union has been severed-and until the breach is healed, families will continue to suffer, and the institution of marriage will remain barren. For centuries, the peasant's cottage and the craftsman's shop were the normal ways of living for over 90 percent of the world's people-until relatively recently. Children found a natural welcome in these places. By age 3 or 4, they could perform simple tasks around the farmstead or in the shop or garden. By age 12, they were ready for full home-centered apprenticeships: the boys looking toward husbandry and the girls focused on the complex skills of housewifery. But the rise of modern industrial ways, first evident in England around 1800 and in America by 1850, upended this family-centered life. In what Karl Polanyi calls "The Great Transformation," the new factories using massive power sources and the new offices using "marketing" shattered the household economy. The workplace was severed from the home. Wives, with their nimble figures, competed against husbands for employment as servants to the machines. They abandoned the old skills of household self-sufficiency-spinning, weaving, candle-making, food preservation, woodworking, subsistence gardening, and animal husbandry, in favor of earning money to spend on factory-made products. In short, the new order showed the incompatibility of traditional marriage with industrial-consumer society. One of the first Americans fully to understand the problem was Catharine Beecher, elder sister of the better-known Harriet Beecher Stowe. Miss Beecher concluded by 1850 that virtue, true religion, and children could now survive only through the complete segregation of the home from the office and factory. Men, she reasoned, were irretrievably drawn into the new world of outside work: Most of the time, they would be gone. Women, however, must renounce the factory and other outside employment and return home to build small Christian commonwealths focused on the teaching and protection of children. Laboring in love
In the 20th century, economists such as Nobel laureate Gary Becker elaborated on the essential problem. Marriage delivers no "gain" if both man and woman are fully and equally engaged in the outside labor market. The natural economy of marriage takes hold only if the partners specialize: either within a productive household such as a small family farm; or by using the strict form of gender segregation proposed by Catherine Beecher. The breach of home and work also created an altogether new problem regarding children. As their rich and varied involvement in household production gave way to a declining list of simple chores, children became economic burdens on their parents, additional mouths to feed rather than little producers. The factory managers also concluded that home education and family apprenticeships were out of sync with the new order of things. At first, they often employed the children directly: Little fingers had their uses. But exposés about abuses of children at work led to partial and eventually complete bans on child labor. Reformers urged instead the adoption of mandatory school attendance laws and "common schools," which applied the industrial model to learning. This added further to the net burden of children on their parents. One result was falling fertility, as the average number of children born into each household tumbled from about seven in 1830 to two a century later. This created, in turn, a crisis of old-age security: Many parents now had too few children to ensure support in their declining years. The response was tax-funded pensions, or Social Security, which again reduced the rationale for marriage and childbearing. As industrial technology swept into ever newer areas, even core family functions passed into the new sphere. Childbirth left the homestead for the maternity factories in urban hospitals. Mother's milk lost out to factory-made infant formula. After the Baby Boom: Lonely women and gridlocked men
For an extraordinary-if brief-time, 1945 to 1965, Americans did manage to put family life back together in a limited way. Tax reforms-including the use of "income splitting" on joint returns, large per capita exemptions for children, and generous home mortgage deductions-artificially restored some of the old economic logic to marriage and childbearing. In addition, working men increasingly crowded into jobs paying a "family wage," while married women either stayed home in the burgeoning suburbs (as urged by Beecher) or were content to work in lower-paying posts. For the first time in a hundred years, three things happened at once: The marriage rate rose, the divorce rate declined, and marital fertility nearly doubled. This was the social miracle we call the "Baby Boom." But the new American model did not (and perhaps could not) last. Women complained about their isolation in suburbia and their separation from the challenges of productive work. Men complained of long hours, weary commutes, and infrequent contact with their own children. The old pressures derived from the radical separation of home and work came storming back in the latter 1960s, with a kind of vengeance. Married women poured into the labor market; marriages unraveled at record rates; cohabitation grew in popularity; and the marital birthrate tumbled. "Who will care for the children?" once again became a crying issue, and the U.S. Congress crafted ever more generous subsidies for substitute child care. Advocates swept aside the overwhelming evidence that mother-care-at-home was, typically, the superior form of child rearing-whether measured by educational results or child health (the medical journal Pediatrics ran a special issue on virulent diseases in day-care centers under the theme "Mayday! Mayday!"). The modern economy wanted women-all women-in full-time employment and would no longer be denied. The children-the few who were born-would just have to adjust, regardless of the impact on long-term human capital formation. Industrial-strength family
As we enter the 21st century, we still wrestle with the social consequences of industrialization: the great divorce of home and work. As long as the industrial principle dominates the production of goods and services, the tension will remain. The family cannot be reconstructed to accommodate the corporations, despite the best efforts of paid "work/family" consultants around the globe, because the family system is part of human nature, rooted in our instincts, hormones, brain patterns, and biology. This system can weaken or decay, or it can grow stronger, but it refuses to be reordered. Nor can industrial capitalism surrender its quests for efficiency, cheap labor, and the displacement of home-made by factory-made goods. These goals represent the very essence of its nature. So in the near run, at least, we must learn to live with imperfect resolutions to the great divorce of work and home. Happily, as we see from the Baby Boom episode, it is possible to put a workable balance into place. One compatible with conditions in the 21st century might include: 0A return to pro-family tax policy. This form of policy tinkering, if ambitious enough, can produce positive results. In the 1950s, the incentives pushed married women toward a focus on residual "home production" (cooking, cleaning, canning, sewing, and child rearing) rather than toward market labor. Similar measures could work again in our own time, with computers providing new options for work-at-home moms. Tax changes could include reintroducing pure "income splitting" on joint tax returns, which would treat marriage as a true partnership and encourage specialization by the partners; a tripling of the existing child tax credit to $1,500; and a near tripling of the per capita exemption to $7,500. The latter two changes would sharply expand the economic value of children, now recast as cute tax shelters rather than as tiny workers. If Congress ever adopted a real flat tax, an indexed personal exemption of $12,000 per family member would probably be sufficient to protect (and encourage) the child-rich family. 0True fairness in child-care policy. Existing policy grants up to $5,000 in tax credits to "working families" that place their small children in non-parental care. Corporate and feminist advocates for working mothers hold ferociously to this measure, for it meaningfully reduces the economic irrationality of substitute care, at the indirect expense of those with children at home. A fair reform would be to turn the existing child-care credit into a fixed credit of $2,500 per child, under age 6. All families would gain greater flexibility in child-care choices, including currently working mothers, and more would undoubtedly choose at-home care. And the indefensible federal preference for institutional care would come to an end. 0Abolition of preferences given to the industrial model. Countless governmental policies covering labor hours, environmental regulations, work rules, accounting practices, zoning restrictions, and much more now give an artificial advantage to the giant institutions descended from the early industrial age. New technologies such as the home computer and the Internet, and myriad new forms of communication, are making home-scale enterprises more efficient than the behemoths in many areas of market work, for both men and women. To encourage these possible first steps toward true de-industrialization, those rules protecting giant institutions from new competition should be scrapped. For example, most residential zoning restrictions should go, allowing for creative new mixes of home and market labor. 0Family reclamation of some core functions. Some couples may start with home births, moving this critical action out of the birthing factories and back into the homestead. They can continue with a commitment to maternal nursing, privately de-industrializing this primal form of home production. And they can also move into homeschooling, thereby reclaiming a central purpose of the natural family. The option of home education is not only good academically and morally for the children, the evidence suggests that it also strengthens the family by focusing all of its members on a critical common task. Home gardens and even a chicken coop could follow as well, as families rediscover the liberating power of self-sufficiency. 0Family control of career-training. Existing child labor laws mostly chase phantom problems unseen since the early 1900s. The environment is different now. For example, the young people in the nation's worst neighborhoods would commonly gain more, intellectually and materially, from a steady paying job than from the pseudo-education given by a poor inner-city junior or senior high school. Vocational and professional apprenticeships in place of formal schooling should also be favored and state restraints on entry into professions such as law and health care loosened. With these changes, we can imagine even the lonely American suburbs reborn, with small shops where empty living rooms once stood; with lawyers and doctors again working out of home offices, assisted by able young apprentices; with productive gardens and modest animal husbandry; and with the midday laughter of homeschooled children where only silence had prevailed. Some will prefer other models, but this is an environment where the breach between home and work might actually start healing, and where marriage and family might flourish again.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Rounding for home

    Baseball player Daniel Murphy launches debate on paternity leave for…