Home Economics? Bring it On!

June 5, 2013

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Ironically, the day I began writing this post, our local paper featured a front-page story titled, “The end of home ec.”

It explained that home economics courses (now called “family and consumer sciences”) were on the verge of elimination due to changes in the state’s minimum education standards.

Did you know our very word economy comes from two Greek words that mean household and stewardship?

The field of inquiry, scholarship, and practice called “home economics” picked up a bad reputation as women moved out of the home into the workforce en masse during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Much of the unpaid work that had been the province of the home for centuries—cooking, laundry, cleaning, caring for children and elders—gradually got outsourced to the market economy. Some economists say this artificially inflated the “economic growth” of the era, as households began paying cash for what had done in the unpaid (and invisible) economy of the home.
 
I don’t yearn for the old days of “stitch & stir” in the girls-only home-ec classrooms of yesteryear, and I’ve always felt cool to the concept of “consumer sciences.”  But I do yearn for a society that accords deep respect and value to the unpaid labor and productivity of the American household. And I think we’re heading back in that direction. 


Valuing unpaid labor as essential and economic

Households create other forms of essential economic value, too, more difficult to outsource. They teach children their native language, transmit culture and values, and shape a child’s understanding of the world and of human relationships.

Recent research by the Pew Research report reported that women are the sole or primary breadwinners in 40 percent of the nation’s households. They bear the children, still take on the lion’s share of housework, and the childcare and eldercare. Families are stretched to their limits.

Previous research has shown that families currently provide about 70 percent of eldercare in the United States. Nearly half of American adults are currently involved in some level of unpaid eldercare, a trend that will continue as the Boomer generation ages.


The return of home economics

Demographers have predicted that the increasing caregiving roles in coming decades, combined with a loss of many traditional paying jobs, will transform the American family and the ways in which families interact with the marketplace.

They forecast more three-generation households, more in-home self-employment, more single-income households, more job-sharing, and more part-time work to accommodate the dual demands of childcare and eldercare.

They forecast more home economics! I’m defining home economics as the value of what individuals and families, aided by various support networks, make or do for their own direct use.

These new households of necessity will have less money to spend on eating out, vacationing away from home, and new cars and appliances. But they will be more in the market for tools and technologies that enable new forms of household production.

The sort of home economics I envision wouldn’t be so much taught as widely demonstrated and promoted. It would become a central feature of our private lives and public policies. It wouldn’t be relegated to classrooms. It would intertwine with both the market and non-profit economies in new and fascinating ways. It will invite new scholarship and new forms of entrepreneurship.

And as the home economics of earlier times adopted sewing machines, electric stoves, and dish washers and clothes dryers, the new home ec will employ and be supported by a variety of new technologies, as well as a large dose of community-wide collaborations.


Emerging signs of the new home ec

  • Maker culture promises to transform public libraries, schools, museums, health promotion centers, academic research institutions, and especially homes, into centers of production rather than consumption.

    So called makerspaces are "collaborative learning environments where people come together to share materials and learn new skills, working from a mindset of community partnership, collaboration, and creation." The Maker Movement has spread rapidly around the world. You’ll be hearing a lot more about it.
  • Repair cafes are nonprofit, often volunteer-run spaces outfitted with tools, where people bring broken items and learn to fix them. Here’s a map of this growing movement, which started in the Netherlands.
     
  • Science shops are “small entities that carry out scientific research in a wide range of disciplines, responding to the local citizenry’s needs for expertise and knowledge – usually free of charge." Burgeoning throughout Europe, the idea has begun to grow throughout the world, including the U.S.
     
  • Fab labs (fabrication laboratories) are small-scale workshops offering (personal) digital fabrication. Like science shops maker-spaces and and repair cafes, they offer collaborative learning environments, where participants learn by making, inventing, repairing at little or no cost.
     
  • Many fab labs feature access to 3-D printers. As these devices become more common and less expensive, designers say they will become ubiquitous in homes, spawning a revolution in creating and making, just as home computing devices have transformed learning and communicating.
     
  • Cooking, sewing, food gardening, carpentry? Oh yes! I think we’ve already seen a sharp turn back toward these classic forms of home production, in some cases dramatically changed by new tools and the advent of online collaborative learning. They seem so ho-hum and old-fashioned, you just don’t hear so much about them in the daily news.

New research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project: Family Caregivers 39 percent of U.S. adults are caring for an adult or child with significant health issues. Who are these caregivers?

Photo: Home economics, 1917, by doc1Some rights reserved.

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

Comments

Not sure how worthwhile

By Sue Fine

Not sure how worthwhile HomeEc is, as I was taught in a parochial school in the '60's, and we didn't have such classes. However, all my public school friends who did have them seemed to learn to hate cooking and sewing! I learned these skills after asking my mother to teach me, and loved doing them.
That being said, I learned VERY QUICKLY after I was married how to take care of a house, garden, budget, and later children. Unlike some women today, I considered my role as a housewife and mother (we preferred "Domestic Engineer" in those days) as very important and I took great pride in my skills. I now work out in the world for a paycheck, but those years of being the household manager are priceless. People on the jobsite are amazed at my ability to bake bread, make clothes, can food, etc. I think Margaret Boyles is correct, the wheel will turn full circle, eventually.

I think home ec does need to

By Margaret Boyles

I think home ec does need to move out of the schools and into society in general as a pursuit worthy of serious policy, practice, and scholarship.

I always preferred the title of Domestic Goddess, and I still yearn for a new breed of Domestic Gods. Both genders need to tend to the productive (not just consumptive) activities of the home.

And that is exactly why we

By Christine - Bronx NY

And that is exactly why we are where we are today. No respect for home, school, neighbors. It is an "instant society" when something brakes - get a new one not let me see if I can fix it. Apparently as can be seen by our society one parent needs to be home with the kids. They need to be taught respect. There is no God or discipline in school so the family must teach the basics of living in society. If they can - can we fix things????

Home economics is an

By Janet Barcia

Home economics is an important subject. They teach children their native language, transmit culture and values, and shape a child’s understanding of the world and of human relationships.

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They should have a course

By Anne Wilson

They should have a course titled, "first apartment". Many kids do not know the cost of basic food purchases, cooking, renting and heating. Nor do they know basic cleaning of clothes, themselves, or the apartment. Simple repairs such as a clogged sink or a running toilet were never taught at home. And the most wanted lesson never taught, how to respect your neighbors. They have to be reminded they do not live at home anymore. Include a lesson on budgets and what happens to credit.

Modern attitudes seem to get

By Old is good too

Modern attitudes seem to get farther and farther from basics. You want to start at the top, with modern technology and equipment. The basics are still needed.. really. A child may not be taught at home, how to make a bed, comfortably and easily, without risking a back injury or why the sheets should be changed regularly. The importance of cleaning anything and everything or that not sanitizing a counter really can make your family sick. One of my home EC classes taught how to give a bed bath. That's something I've never learned anywhere else and it has been very useful knowledge, not fascinating, just useful. Like cursive writing, basic hygiene seems to be disappearing or there wouldn't be so many signs in bathrooms with instructions in hand washing.

Good points! I love the idea

By Margaret Boyles

Good points! I love the idea that home economics includes knowledge of how to give a bed bath, as well as the many forms of basic healthcare that help individuals and families avoid a trip to the doctor's office.

However, I'd suggest that "modern technology," at least in the form of online savvy, has become part of the basic skill set needed to navigate the modern world, learn, teach, solve problems, and collaborate.

From my perspective, home economics needs to expand way beyond the domain of schools and move into communities of place and communities of learning,in both physical and virtual environments.

I also think we need to infuse government policymaking with an understanding of the essential economic values of non-market (household)production of goods and services.

Interesting how these things

By Traci Brennan

Interesting how these things have come full circle in my own lifetime! I took Home Ec as a youngster, watched the home arts become passe, and now am seeing a resurgence of home based skills and values. But I do not agree with the "unpaid" moniker. We homemakers are paid, not in cash, but in kind. A secure pleasant home is rewarding to the provider as well as to the family.

I couldn't agree more with

By Margaret Boyles

I couldn't agree more with your assertion that homemakers are richly rewarded for their work, Traci.

My concerns lie with the way in which our national accounting standards consider as "economic" only those activities that occur in markets (where consumers exchange cash for goods and services).

Shop at a supermarket, eat at a restaurant, pay someone to care for your children or adult parent, and the dollars you spend become part of the nation's Gross Domestic Product(GDP).

Grow a garden, prepare a meal,provide care for your children or elders, and the value of your labor disappears from any meaningful standard of measuring economic value. (Although the value of your raw materials, for which you pay cash, does count.)

Serious economists have calculated that the total value of the "household (non-market) economy," if we impute even a minimum dollar value to the labor involved, easily equals or surpasses the value of the market economy in advanced industrial democracies.

This matters a lot. What's invisible (the value of family caregiving, for example)isn't accounted for in government planning for health care,long-term care, and other social programs--remember, families' capacity for unpaid care is limited, and already stretched almost to the breaking point.

Unpaid family labor doesn't count towards social security benefits and other provisions for old age, dispriviliging (still mostly women)homemakers in their own elder years.

It's a complex matter. The value of nonmarket work needs a full accounting alongside our current standards of economic vitality, which don't even notice it.

I agree. I spent years

By Anne Wilson

I agree. I spent years working part-time taking care of the kids so my ex could work and go to school. I took care of my parents when they were sick and still alive. Social security does not but a figure on this work. This is hard work. After work and seeing to your family's needs, go take your parent to doctors, their errands and grocery shopping, then bathe them, then drive home . The fun part is being told you did nothing.

You touch a deep spot in my

By Margaret Boyles

You touch a deep spot in my heart, Anne. I've spent decades researching and writing about the under-valued value of household production, and I plan to keep writing about it.

A group of serious academic economists has begun work to make visible the currently invisible and vital work of the home. Nancy Folbre is one of them. Check out this op-ed she wrote last year, Valuing Domestic Product.

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