Feminism, cognitive function and poor households: An example of how pluralist insights help development economics
Contemporary thought on the behaviour of the poor is lacking. On one hand, we have a lot to prove that the poor are not fundamentally different from their richer peers and their decisions are bad not because of some inherent features like laziness or ignorance but because of the hopelessness of their situation which leads to constrained and therefore necessarily worse decisions. Yet, these views do not find their way to standardised economics models when describing poor behaviour which still operates by using neoclassical assumptions about a rational agent with no constraints to decision-making, therefore it cannot contribute to better policymaking. I will present a micro-level problem of a household which inevitably arises if we think about the decision-making process of poor households. I urge to solve the problem by incorporating insightsfrom feminist economics to the analysis of poor households.
It is easy to see that intuitively; the poor make worse decisions. At the end of the day, this is why they are poor, right? Well, the reality is more well-versed than this. Many progressive economists have tried to explain their seemingly poor capacities to make good decisions. Moav et al. (2012) explain that the modest spending patterns of the poor are jeopardised by a temptation that arises from cultural traditions and simple peer pressure, contributing to conspicuous consumption. Mani et al. (2013) examines how well agricultural workers perform on cognitive tests before and after harvest, and states that undernourishment or simply stress about uncertain future (as they do not know in advance how successful the harvest will be) is linked to worse cognitive performance. These studies are extremely important in explaining what seemingly seems to be ignorance and laziness is just being extremely constrained by their environment.
Alike, when we think about problems characterising poor households, these neoclassical assumptions seem to be too loose to grasp the reality of their life, hence contributing to incorrect models. Taking the heteronormative assumption which unfortunately characterises poor households, I would like to introduce a fundamental problem. When thinking about the decision-making process of the household, much of the literature inherently takes the fairly neoclassical assumption that the bargaining power of given household members is directly proportional to their income. A good example of this is Anderson and Baland’s (2002) work, which reduces the bargaining power of the household members to a simple variable which is used as a weighting in the model about their income. This is a lazy assumption to do since it ignores the gender relations between household members. Think about that; what if the women are the breadwinner? Would it mean that she is going to be the one in charge? Empirical evidence says no. Research involving 335 households concluded that women seem to be inherently more likely to do household activities, independently to their role in the visible labour market (Fletcher, 1998). My research among low-earning households (Almasi, 2019) came to the same realisation while discovering the dimensions of it; even if a woman earns more than her spouse, there are several persisting cultural reasons why still the women do most of the household work. An extreme example of the situation is one of the women I interviewed; she reported that despite her husband is only lightly handicapped and would be capable to work, she still has to do all the household work beside her 40-hours long working week.
I propose a plausible solution to this problem. The amount of household work done by each household member might be a potentially better proxy for estimating the bargaining power of each household member. This incorporation of feminist insights into the economics models would hopefully contribute to a much deeper understanding of a lot of problems that starts with the household-level analysis. By acknowledging the role of household work, we might find better-versed answers to questions such as why women are less flexible on low-paid labour markets, or why there is more chance for low pay if there are high concentrations of women at the given workplace.
This blog post is by no means an exhaustive review, but merely a presentation of a specific problem that hopefully sheds light on the throwback of neoclassical economic calculations. I am happy to carry on with the discussion. Critics, comments and general queries are welcomed. My email is .
Almasi, David (2019) Broken Promises? - A Qualitative Analysis of the Hungarian Public Employment Scheme. (Working Paper). Available at:
Anderson, Siwan and Jean-Marie, Baland (2002) The Economics of Roscas and Intrahousehold Resource Allocation. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 117, No. 3, pp. 963-995.
Fletcher, Joyce K. (1998) Relational Practice: A Feminist Reconstruction of Work. Nontraditional Research, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 163-186.
Mani, Anandi; Mullainathan, Sendhil; Shafir, Eldar; Zhao, Jiaying (2013) poverty Impedes Cognitive Function. In Science, Vol. 341, Issue 6149, pp. 976-980.
Moav, Omer and Zvika Neeman, (2012) Saving Rates and Poverty: The Role of Conspicuous Consumption and Human Capital. The Economic Journal, 122, 933-956.