What Is Kin Work and Is It Really Off-Market?

It is vital to recognize the importance of kin work, which “often happens off-market.”

When Ben Shapiro interviewed Eric Weinstein in July of 2018, they both agreed: it is vital to recognize the importance of kin work, which “often happens off-market.” This attitude has been common across political divides since before Micaela di Leonardo referred to kin work as “nonmarket activities” in a paper from the Department of Anthropology at Yale University in Spring of 1987. The term “kin work” refers to the labor of rearing and nurturing children, both inside a family and throughout a community. But is kin work really off-market?

Kin Work Incentives

Being raised by a stay-at-home mother and attending art school both frequently exposed me to the same odd question: Why would you value something other than money? It was never said in those words, but the sentiment was that prioritizing non-liquefiable forms of value was irresponsible.

At art school, most of my peers and I had parents or grandparents who wished we would study something more marketable than art. They had trouble accounting for the personal value of engaging in creative self-expression instead of miserably staring at a spreadsheet. A calling incomparable to money leads people to become not just artists, but teachers, nurses, and perhaps most salient of all, full-time parents.Some people don’t see the equivalence between spending hard-earned money on luxury items and accruing luxury by foregoing liquid profits in the first place.

Art is just one of the countless industries in which people willingly sacrifice financial welfare for welfare of some other kind. A calling incomparable to money leads people to become not just artists, but teachers, nurses, and perhaps most salient of all, full-time parents.

The assumption that kin work is off-market stems from an overly simplistic view of market incentives. To categorize monetary assets separately from intangible assets such as the incalculable joys of motherhood is to ignore all the ways in which these spheres influence one another.

The Market Influence of Kin Work

A primary factor in the supply and demand of a product or service is the desirability of the occupations in question. For example, since dangerous work is generally less desirable than safer work, hazard pay is offered to sweeten the deal. Otherwise, these occupations would probably go understaffed for obvious reasons. Conversely, being an artist is such a joyous and fulfilling occupation that there are hundreds of artists waiting to sell you custom commissioned original artwork for five bucks or less.

Some large fraction of this group of parents would assume other occupations if they quit staying at home. 

Now consider the desirability of kin work. According to a Gallup poll from 2013, only five percent of American adults do not want children. Any occupation desired by—and available to—roughly 95 percent of the population is not going to be a paying job. People will simply do it for free. But this does not make it nonmarket.

Pew research from 2018 found that stay-at-home moms and dads account for about one-in-five US parents. Some large fraction of this group of parents would assume other occupations if they quit staying at home. This would increase the supply of whatever labor market they entered. Therefore, it is safe to assume that kin work, as a desirable alternative to other work, is increasing wages and product costs in countless industries by disincentivizing entry into those sectors of the workforce other than kin work.

The Market Significance of Marriage

More specific considerations, such as marriage contracts, also make it impossible to disentangle kin work from other market phenomena. The legal union of my parents (and over 60 million couples like them in the US) was more than a romantic affiliation—it was a financial agreement.

Since I was born in 1995, my father has continuously held nine-to-five jobs while my mother was a stay-at-home parent. And according to their marriage contract, they share equal ownership of funds and assets. So did my dad get swindled, or did he get sufficient value for his money?

I am in no position to speak for him on this topic, but after watching most of his life unfold before my eyes, I can say that I am not opposed to making a similar bargain. The incalculable influence of kin work on our economic world renders it a market force as powerful as any other.And perhaps more importantly, the degree to which my mother’s influence has enhanced my Darwinian fitness gives me confidence that from a kin selectionist’s perspective, the deal my dad made was perfectly reasonable.

But the financial prudence of my father’s marital history is orthogonal to the question of its economic relevance. They may have done it in an indirect way, but my parents’ marriage contract was a transaction of kin work for money.

Without that contract to secure her future, my mother would have had serious doubts about foregoing an out-of-the-house career. And if she had been bringing in consistent paychecks like he was, his incentive to do highly lucrative work instead of chasing his dream as a schoolteacher would have been substantially reduced.

The incalculable influence of kin work on our economic world renders it a market force as powerful as any other. Although I have just barely touched upon that influence here, the evidence is all around us. All you must do is look.

Further Reading

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