Thursday, April 26, 2012


Austerity (Cheryl Ives, Kitchener, 2012)

If Corporations are the producers of goods and services in the economy, responsible for the economic benefit of their shareholders, Households are the consumers of those goods and services, responsible for the livelihood of their members. And governments are the arbiters of the arena.

Corporations maintain a budget to allow for the operations required to be able to produce goods. Ideally, corporations would pay nothing for activities related to transforming materials into value. Ideally, they would have slave labour or all-purpose machines, so that their only cost would be materials. Ideally, they would have no need of marketing, because their products are so critical to the customer that all the marketing dollars can go into profits. That is the state Corporations would achieve if they could. They would maximize profit by reducing operational costs and owning the market. As it is, Corporations allocate budgets for marketing, accounting, transportation, legal, etc., and they pay people for their work.

Households maintain a budget to allow for the consumption required to be able to live in the society in which people find themselves at birth or by choice. Ideally, people would not require food, water, shelter, clean air, medical attention, emotional attention, teaching or caring. The fewer needs a household has, the more resources can be allocated to consumption. Ideally, they would have no need of learning – like so many species, so much more could be instinctual and learned through observation. Ideally, they would not require particular kinds of consumption (basic food and shelter, etc.) and could maximize consumption for an otherwise safe, happy and healthy lifestyle. As it is, Households allocate budgets for shelter, food, utilities, transportation, etc. Unlike Corporations, however, they do not pay people for their work.

Like a charity, a Household expects you to work for free. Like you’re a volunteer. No one pays me manage the budgets. No one pays me to go grocery shopping, plan nutritious meals, prepare and serve them, clean up afterwards. I’m not paid for my hours of reading and talking with other parents to remind myself every day how to coax the genius out of each of my children. I’m not paid to be here when the bus arrives, to help them think through the emotional upheavals of their days and remember the lessons they learned in class so that they can progress in education and emotional intelligence into productive adulthood. These are all activities I would not be doing if they were not required for participation in society and responsible parenting of new human units for the world. Yet, no one even acknowledges that any of this is worth anything, is of VALUE at all. 

If I don’t do these things that the household can’t pay me for, the household will grind to a stop or become disfunctional. The employment that earns money could be affected. The kids behaviour and learning could be affected. Their long term mental health. If my household grinds to a stop, if my kids become criminals or fail to thrive in society, it may not be that big a deal. But if thousands of households experience the same thing, the entire economy, and the thin veneer of society that rests gently upon it, will collapse. 

Women needed economic freedom and the only way to get it in the industrial age was to demand entry into the male arena of “work.”  We did that with a vengeance, so that now we have more education among us and participate in workplaces in record numbers. Many of us are financially independent from men (or have the capacity to be), but we can’t forget that most "women’s work" - the work of Care and of Households - is still low paid and treated as though it has low value. Many of us are not financially independent in this world of work. And we still work ourselves to the bone, serving the household.

I'd like to see a change to how we value work in this culture. Entering the private or public sector workforce cannot be the only path to financial recompense for work of value to society. I would like to widely acknowledge and validate the vast amount of critical work that no one is willing to pay for, but without which, we perpetuate poverty, crime, and general human failures to thrive on so many levels. 

Emerging from the Household into the wider community, there is an entire army of volunteer workers propping up our under-funded hospitals, schools, health centres, our mental health system and the widespread food and housing insecurity that keeps so many people on the razor's edge every day. All this work is of value, not just to one household, but to society as a whole. Neighbours helping neighbours. People having the time, energy and capacity to take on what matters to them. We are not building this up, but squeezing it out. 

Unlike Corporations, which exist to earn profit, Households do not exist to consume. They exist so that people can live, and try to make happy, safe lives for themselves, together.  There is a lot of overhead in the running of a consumer household, and a lot of overhead in creating a safe, happy family environment that produces humans (child and adult) capable of learning and becoming productive. We don’t pay for any of that overhead. It’s all slave labour. And not everyone does it well, nor can.

When women joined the workforce, we agreed that paid work was of value and the rest was menial. We let the work of Caring and Household Operations continue to be devalued and ignored in the economic system. We just piled on more work for all of us, men and women alike, by expecting two incomes per household and setting up society on the basis of an accidental red herring called “full employment.” We let our governments get convinced by corporations that their only role was to arbitrate the consumer society, not to protect or support citizens' lives. Because we didn’t actively or vocally disagree. We went along with it because we couldn’t imagine another path to equality.

It’s time now, for society to re-evaluate. It’s time for Government to take responsibility for some of the overhead, or force employers to pay enough that no families live in day-to-day terror of whether they can pay the utilities, rent and feed their kids on what’s in the fridge. Begrudgingly I see that maybe there was some merit to the idea of paying a family man more than a single, after all - but it didn't have to do with the man. It wasn't fair, but neither is ignoring those costs. It’s time for all of us to take a look at the Same-Old-New indentured servant/slave class of Household Workers. It’s time society considers the costs for propping up our crumbling economic system. Maybe if we do a good job on the foundations, the rest won't topple over.