Too Many Hours - Too Little Pay: The Impact of Market and Household Hours on Women's Work Lives

By Heath, Julia A.; Ciscel, David H. et al. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Too Many Hours - Too Little Pay: The Impact of Market and Household Hours on Women's Work Lives


Heath, Julia A., Ciscel, David H., Sharp, David C., Journal of Economic Issues


As a society we have been loathed to acknowledge the chronic overwork that plagues the American household, preferring to romanticize the role of housewife and mother. Yet the shortage of time is not merely a problem of our paying jobs - we spend just as much time working inside the home as we do outside of it.

- Juliet B. Schor, 1991.

Work has many components. For many women, the great divide is the number of hours spent in the paid labor force relative to the number of hours working in the household. As the number of hours women commit to the labor market expands, there is a potential for a nurturance gap [Stanfield and Stanfield 1997] as the family unit finds itself underserved. On the other hand, if women choose to emphasize household work, they do not accumulate useable human capital necessary to protect their long-term economic well-being. The result is that many women in families, participating fully in both home and market, work too many hours for too little pay.

This paper adds to the research in the economics of household labor through an analysis of the current work effort required of women in different types of families. How many hours does it take to maintain the household? Just how many hours do women in households work each week? What are the actual hourly earnings for that labor? And what are the benefits associated with this work effort?

Changes in Market and Household Labor

Over the past century, with changes in our economy, the style of family organization has also changed. The great agent of change, both inside and outside the family, has been industrial capitalism. The agricultural tasks and artisan skills of women were transformed into skills for manufacturing industries, incentives for women to consume new and improved household goods were created, and women were tempted to leave the servitude of the household for commercial work. The economic transformation of the household, as an economic entity, that has resulted has been profound [Folbre 1991].

Though economic researchers estimate household production functions, modern households rarely actually produce physical goods for consumption or for leisure. Most of these products and services are produced in the commercial sector. Household members use commercial equipment, purchased goods, and market services to accomplish household tasks. But members of the household provide non-market services: the provision of social capital to sustain the family structure, the reproduction of labor capacity for the industrial sector, and consumption for leisure. Indeed, household labor is usually linked to the provision of these basic necessities and to the consumption process [Schor 1991]. And although the nature of household labor has changed over time [Vanek 1974], women have been and remain the primary providers of this labor.

Paralleling the changes in household labor has been changes in the marketplace for women's labor. As the modern labor market has grown and redefined work force needs, new laborers - often less expensive in terms of total wage costs - have entered the market to fuel those expansions. The largest numbers of new entrants in the United States over the last several decades have been women. Long hours and low pay are the fate of women, as their work force participation has risen and their household responsibilities have not decreased commensurately. The creation of the modern market-goods-intensive household and the integration of women into the wage system has not allowed most women to become free of household drudgery. Instead, household responsibilities are combined with long hours, low pay, and weak benefit packages [Heath and Ciscel 1988].

Society, and the market in particular, ignores the long household work hours, the hours of care-giving, and the work imposed by traditional familial roles of the larger society. But a greater commitment to the labor market by women poses problems for women's economic health for two reasons. …

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