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A review of The Family Wage: Work, Gender, and Children in the Modern Economy. Edited by Bryce Christensen.

Jan 11, 1994

The Rockford Institute, 1988.

“We are busily unmaking one of the proudest social achievements in the nineteenth century, which was to take married women out of the workforce so they could devote themselves to family and children.” – Peter Drucker, American social analyst.

The question of a family wage first arose during the industrialization of Western economies after 1750. The most urgent question raised was how to structure family life and gender roles within a competitive labour market. The early political economists like Smith, Malthus and Ricardo wrestled with these issues of family life and the economy.

John Stuart Mill, for example, while opposing the concept of child allowances, did call on women labourers to return home.

Said Mill, “It cannot … be considered desirable as a permanent element in the conditioning of a labouring class, that the mother of a family … should be under the necessity of working for subsistence, at least elsewhere than in the place of their abode.”

He also championed a family wage, arguing that “the man’s wages must be at least sufficient to support himself, a wife, and a number of children adequate to keep up the population.”

Socialist economists claimed that capitalism couldn’t deliver a family wage. Engels denounced the system because “a married woman cannot really be regarded as a mother if she is unable to spare time to look after her child.”

“It is inevitable,” he wrote, “that if a married woman works in a factory, family life is … destroyed … and its dissolution has the most demoralizing consequences both for parents and children.” Marx was later to build on this argument.

How did the problem of families in modern economies become resolved? The idea of a minimum family wage was established at the turn of this century. In Australia, for example, Victoria approved the “Factories and Shops Act of 1896” with the concept of a “living family wage” at its core. Similar efforts at a family wage were implemented in America, Great Britain and large sections of Europe, and by the 1940s the family wage ideal had triumphed.

But forces hostile to the family, including radical feminism, dominated during the past four decades, undermining the rationale for, and basis of, a family wage. As but one illustration of the decline of the family wage, between 1973 and 1986 the average earnings of American males aged 20-24 fell from $11,939 to $8,859. This drop meant that while 59 per cent of all males in 1973 could support a three-member family at or above the official poverty line, only 44 per cent could in 1985.

As one author puts it, “By any indicator, the traditional family relying on the husband’s family wage has suffered a decline in its relative economic status.” What transpired to bring about this reversal of fortune for families?

This book, the proceedings of a conference held in March of 1988, examines the history, philosophy and prospects of the family wage concept. Authors include Christensen, Allan Carlson and Jean Bethke Elshtain.

As already noted, the concept of a family wage gained widespread support during the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries. Its general decline during the second half of the twentieth century is a reflection of a greater decline or abandonment of the family and its importance. Government policy has a large part to play in this deterioration of the family.

Indeed, as several of the authors note, government policy can either make or break families, with very few government policies not affecting families in one form or another.

As a case in point, government policies in Sweden are clearly anti-family. There the government worked quite purposely to undermine the traditional family in favour of a “transitional” family, with total sexual equality and children’s rights seen as preeminent.

The result of such state intervention “was a drop in the marriage rate, an increase in the illegitimacy rate, and a rise in single-parent households. To discourage stay-at-home mothering, the Swedish government disallowed child-care allowances for homemaking mothers.”

The Australian government seems almost as bent on breaking up the traditional family. Last year Health Services Minister Peter Staples declared that the government aim was to get mothers into the paid workforce: “It has long been established that the Commonwealth Government’s primary objective for the Services for Families with Children Programme is to support labour market participation by parents with young children”.

In addition to a government intent on driving women into the paid workforce, our taxation and welfare system tends to discriminate against the traditional two-parent, one-income family. Thus the need for a family wage seems all the more vital. A concept such as a home-makers’ allowance has received wide-spread support whenever raised.

It is time for politicians to take notice of how policies affect the family. A good way to start is by recalling the importance given to a family wage in the past. Considering that Australia was a world-leader in this area, it would be wise for this book to be read by politicians and concerned parents alike.

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