Wages for Housework? Four Divergent Perspectives Highlighted in The New York Times

The New York Times recently published a “Room for Debate” column featuring four different perspectives on the topic “Wages for Housework.” The premise of the debate: that housework – including child care – is generally unpaid labor, except when others are hired to perform it. A professional child care provider is remunerated for child care work, while a mother isn’t. Countries in vastly different parts of the world have considered proposals to pay housewives (as well as househusbands) a salary for their work, with advocates arguing that the wages would give millions of people financial autonomy and demonstrate that taking care of children, cleaning, and cooking meals are difficult tasks that are critical for national well-being.

All Our Kin’s work with family child care providers has made us passionate about increasing the status of child care in the eyes of the public. NPR recently featured a graph showing the ten most popular jobs in each income bracket illustrating how different jobs are remunerated; sadly, the bracket including child care workers falls dead last. Furthermore, a recent report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment highlighted the challenges of building a skilled workforce of early educators in a nation where “much of the public is averse to the idea that pre-kindergarten teachers require levels of knowledge and skill as rigorous as those of their counterparts who teach older children.” We must find a way to pay child care providers the wages that they deserve for educating our youngest, most vulnerable children.

Although none of the “Wages for Housework” proposals have been passed into law, they have sparked important conversations about the value of child care and other housework, including the discussion in the “Room for Debate” column, whose participants included professors, writers, and economists.

Noah Zatz, a law professor at UCLA, argues that governments’ unwillingness to view child care and household tasks as valuable economic activities has numerous negative consequences. Housewives do not get any employment protections; they cannot access programs for retirement, disability, unemployment, or tax credits. Furthermore, those who work in others homes – such as caregivers and domestic workers – are also taken for granted and are often excluded from labor protections. As Zatz writes, “Devaluing housework for one’s own family also means discounting its importance when done by others.” Providing wages for housework would both give housewives those much-needed protections and raise the overall status of housework.

An alternative solution, offered by Heather Boushey (economist and executive director of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth), would be to make full-time jobs a bit less “full-time.” Many families don’t want to have one parent stay at home while the other works anymore, she said, but achieving a work-family balance is close to impossible for families with two working parents. If the standard work week was only 30 hours, she notes, families would have time to complete housework and divide it fairly between members of the household.

Milad Doroudian, the senior editor of The Art of Polemics, argues that placing a monetary value on housework would commodify family relationships and erode trust between family members. Instead, Doroudian proposes giving “all women real equitable opportunity in the public sphere, where they could use the money they earn to hire someone to do the housework.”

Finally, lifestyle journalist Porcshe Moran emphasizes the logistical barriers that would make the “wages for housework” proposals impossible. How would hours be calculated? Would all homemakers receive the same wages, or would it depend on how many children are in a family, or the size of the house? Would husbands be paying their wives, or would the government provide extra subsidies? “I’m troubled by the thought of spouses as employees,” she writes. “Will we have to sign a W-9 with our marriage licenses?”

Click here to visit the New York Times’ Room for Debate column and read the four responses in full.

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