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Recovering the "Family Wage"

By Timothy D. Terrell
December 01, 2000

I Timothy 5:8 should be a sobering verse for husbands and fathers ruling over financially strapped households: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” In an age when the bread-winning function is most often shared by husband and wife, the thought of living entirely off the husband’s income sometimes seems a completely unattainable ideal. This is not entirely due to the irresponsibility of couch-potato husbands. Political, economic, and cultural pressures have combined to undermine the family wage — a wage high enough that a man earning it can provide adequately for himself and his immediate family.

There are two key contributors to the erosion of the family wage: 1) expansion of the state beyond its Biblical limits, and 2) the opening of market opportunities for women and children following industrialization. Here I will take each in turn, though state intervention into labor markets, corporate welfare, and other government-industry entanglements make it difficult to discuss the two independently.

The State vs. the Family Wage

Certainly the ever-larger slice of family income confiscated by the state has left many families wondering whether a single income can really provide for their needs. When the nation of Israel cried out for a king, the prophet Samuel warned that a high level of state taxation and spending was associated with the destruction of the family. “He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers he said, and an implied increase of military expenditures would result in men being taken from homes.

Indeed, a state operating outside its Biblical limits sees the family as a competitor to be suppressed. With a tax system based almost exclusively on taking a cut from visible market transactions (e.g., a tax on payments from an employer, a tax on profits, a tax on sales receipts, etc.), the state has an incentive to increase the value of such transactions. Thus the state benefits in some sense from the destruction of the home as a productive economic unit because what was once produced in the home is translated into market production, a more visible, quantifiable, and therefore more easily taxed form of production.

Home education, for example, has been replaced in large part by public schooling. Taxation to pay for this schooling requires families to generate dollars, which means that in-home, extra-market production must be replaced with a market wage. While in public schools, the state further undermines the family by teaching children that their parents are probably imbeciles, and the State Knows Best. Many statements from early public school advocates bear this out; perhaps one of the most blunt was that of John Swett, superintendent of the California public education system in the 1860s. Swett wrote, “[T]he child should be taught to consider his instructor ... superior to the parent in point of authority.... The vulgar impression that parents have a legal right to dictate to teachers is entirely erroneous.... Parents have no remedy as against the teacher.”‘1

This view of parental incompetence typifies modern writing on education. Hillary Clintons It Takes a Village contains these overtones in several chapters, particularly those on child care and primary and secondary education. Guidance by the civil government is necessary, she suggests, to get inept parents back in line on education — meaning, of course, that the parents act in a subordinate and supportive role with respect to the public school. Instead of questioning the actions of teachers, parents should “back up school authority.” While teachers and principals are not always right, Mrs. Clinton confesses, they “deserve to be given back the presumption that they are.” What happened to the presumption that the parent was right, and that teachers and administrators should subordinate their actions to the preferences of the parents?

In response to this assault on the family, the home schooling movement has begun to reclaim education, and thereby part of the productive function of the family. As sociologist Allan Carlson notes, “Home education ... represents the return of a central function to the family.... [H]ome schooling families discover what it feels like to be ‘reinstitutionalized.’”2

There are several other good examples of state encouragement of market labor for wives and mothers. A good case can be made that the U.S. government began to make concerted efforts to draw women into factories during World War II. Hence, it is not only the state that encourages women to be in the workforce now, but it was one of the main early causes as well.

The Feminization of Market Labor

Allan Carlson argues that women’s entry into the labor force is a major reason the family wage has nearly disappeared in the last thirty years.3 Industrialization, with all its accompanying benefits, produced high-wage opportunities for women that tempted many families to compromise their home orientation. More women in the work force meant an increased supply of labor and lower wages for everyone. Husbands and fathers now found that supporting a family on one income was more difficult, because they were competing with their wives, daughters, and sisters.

Biblical cultural norms that placed a high value on child-rich families, and thus ordered a mother’s priorities toward household production, gradually waned in the U.S. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The final death throes of the family wage occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. Until the late 1940s, businesses sometimes offered higher wages to men, or men who had families. This was not necessarily the result of a conscious effort by businesses to support families. Wage disparities between “career” women (who avoid family-building) and men are practically non-existent. Because of their consistent participation in the labor force, men may simply have been better able to develop their “human capital,” or workplace skills, justifying a higher wage on economic grounds. Whatever the motivation of employers, this family-friendly policy was eliminated for good by the 1963 Federal Equal Pay Act, which made the practice illegal. Even so, from the 1940s through the 1960s, the family wage was still implicitly supported because men usually received the higher-paying jobs, while those women who entered the labor force became typists, clerks, nurses, and secretaries.

When the word sex was added to Title VTI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this essentially destroyed one of the few remaining supports of the family wage. What was thought to be “gender-based job discrimination” was to be eliminated by the regulatory power of the federal government.4

Economists have contended that it is efficient to pay a wage that is equal to the contribution of labor to output without eliminating any group from the population considered for the job. If an employer discriminates. that is, shows preference for some quality in employees other than those qualities that affect one’s productivity, he will have to pay a higher wage for the privilege. So discrimination is inefficient for the firm, and a profit-minded employer will not practice it. An employer permitted to discriminate may wish to do so, but if all his competitors are drawing from a labor pool that includes women, he is placed at a competitive disadvantage if he selects from men only. Similarly, a man who wishes to support a family on his wage alone may find it difficult to do so because he is competing with women for his job, and his wages are consequently lowered. If his wife stays at home they may find themselves in poverty. So the individual employer and the individual employee have short-term incentives to contribute to the destruction of the family wage.

We cannot fault the market for these incentives. A market economy generates benefits by efficiently allocating resources toward consumer wants. If families resist the temptation to send women and children off to market work, the market is functioning well. If people do not resist this temptation, the market is still allocating resources towards consumer wants; i.e., it still works well. In a market economy, wives and mothers may enter the workforce in great numbers. The people incur guilt by rejecting God’s revealed law for families — the mechanism that allows them to achieve their goals does not.

It is worth noting that the entry of women into the workplace has contributed to a lower cost of market production and lower prices on many goods and services. The entry of women into the work force may have reduced prices, so that a family can enjoy a higher standard of living with a given income, but the cost may be steep: the removal of women from home-based occupations that are ultimately more productive.

Recovering the Family Wage

These concerns might lead some to advocate a federally mandated “living wage,” or a minimum wage set at such a level that one earning it could feasibly provide basic necessities for a family. Politicians continue to cling to this “solution,” though few economic policies are as demonstrably ruinous as wage and price controls. Rather than forcing employers to pay low-wage workers more than their labor is worth, employers simply refuse to keep workers on the payroll who cannot produce enough to justify their paycheck. Unemployment is the unambiguous result. Teenagers just entering the labor force are particularly hard-hit, so that their opportunities for building up a work history and savings for education and family are significantly reduced. Adults already supporting families are denied the freedom to use even the few workplace skills they possess.

Recovering the family wage by resorting to state solutions is decidedly not the correct response. Apart from the fact that the state contributed so much to the problem in the first place, promoting a certain wage is not one of the state’s Biblical responsibilities. Allan Carlson suggests tax credits for children, which is fine — any reduction in taxes would be nice. Also he suggests a return to income splitting for married couples. Again, on the same basis, that would be worthwhile. Certain federal, state, and local regulations should also be eliminated (such as zoning, which handicaps businesses that work out of the home).

However, Carlson also argues that we should “increase the progressivity of income tax rates, establishing five brackets, ranging from 10 to 50 percent.”5 The argument is that this would strengthen the family by encouraging families to produce things at home rather than earning income and purchasing those goods and services in the marketplace. This suggestion seems to me a failure to consider the broader issues at stake. Scripture clearly warns against high taxation,6 and though changing the structure of income tax may alter somewhat the incentives for an individual family in favor of home production, the real issue is the level of taxation. A large state operating outside its Biblical limits poses a real threat to the family. Carlson and others who want to buttress families through the state implicitly assume that strong families could not exist without the state in the first place. Families predate the state7 and are more fundamental to society.

The most effective methods of recovering the family wage may be non-economic and non-political. Even after market opportunities for women opened up, the family wage was maintained for a time by commonly held cultural views grounded in a Biblical worldview. The prevailing view was that the father should be the breadwinner and head of the household, and the wife should look after the immediate needs of the children, manage the household, and minister to her husband. This idea meant that husbands discouraged their wives from working outside the home, wives didn’t seek jobs outside the home, and businesses expressly preferred male candidates for most positions. The labor supply for market work was essentially limited to men, and the wage paid to men was enough to support their families.

Redeeming the Culture

In conclusion, looking merely at the temporal pecuniary benefits to having women seek jobs (from the family’s point of view) and be hired (from the firm’s point of view) neglects an important side effect of their entrance into the work force. If every family with children has both parents engaged in market labor, this will reduce the wage to the point where we may not see the strong families we would like to have in a society. In the presence of incentives for both employer and employee to bring women and children into the work force, it seems that the best approach is to work to redeem the culture and remove laws that give the state unbiblical power.

Ultimately, the solution lies outside of economics per se — in the spheres of social pressure, church exhortation and discipline, and family leadership. Business owners need to be told that it is morally OK to give unequal pay for equal work, or to prefer to hire family men (though it is advisable to refrain from acting on these preferences in the current legal climate). Men should be told, first, that they should wait until they are able to support a family before getting married, and second, that it is dishonorable to pressure the mother of their children to be a co-breadwinner. The church should remind mothers who feel such pressure that great rewards accrue to those who follow Biblical priorities.8 Finally, some families need to be encouraged to tolerate a lower standard of living on a father’s income in order to preserve the integrity and purpose of the family.

  1. Rousas J . Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (Philadelphia, 1963), 80, 81.

  2. Allan Carlson, “Will Family-Centered Education Strengthen Families?” The Family in America, 12:9 (September 1998), 6.

  3. In passing over some of the destructive effects of high taxes and regulation, Carlson neglects the possibility that lower take-home pay due to taxation has produced dual-income households rather than the other way around. But Carlson’s point is well-taken.

  4. Allan Carlson, “Beyond the ‘Family Wage’ Quandary,” The Family in America, 8:12 (December 1994), p. 7.

  5. ibid, 10.

  6. I Sam. 8:14-18.

  7. Gen. 2:21-24.

  8. Pr. 31:10-31; I Tim. 2:15.


Topics: Economics, Family & Marriage, Government, Conspiracy

Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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