Housewife in her mobile home in Minnesota. Photo: Horatio Villalobos / Wikimedia
Should the state – one way or another – pay home-makers for housework? Nothing new in that question. Family campaigners have said so for years. But it is potentially of note that the idea is now being advocated – I use the word advisedly m’lud – by two prominent lawyers.
Both have arrived at their conclusions independently and, interestingly, the points they advance in favour of reimbursement, are really quite different.
One of these attorneys is Noah Zatz, a professor at the University of California School of Law who joined a debate on the subject at the New York Times last week. Part of his critique of the domestic status quo is legalistic – that it involves a diminution of the rights enjoyed by other productive citizens.
He is concerned that: “Unlike the low-wage worker, the ‘housewife’ gets no credit for contributing to the household economy. That means no protection against future disability, unemployment or retirement via Social Security or related social insurance programs.”
This has long been a source of exasperation for home-makers who maintain that their decision to run a home – often in tandem with raising children – is penalised by the tax and benefits system.
But Professor Zatz introduces a new element to this debate by arguing that “devaluing housework for one’s own family also means discounting its importance when done by others”.
What does he mean by that? He thinks domestic workers are undervalued – most recently by a Supreme Court ruling which described them as “quasi, not full-fledged” employees – partly because unpaid housework is taken for granted. So, paying for housewifery, would – he suggests – have a benign knock-on effect for all domestic workers.
The other lawyer to enter this fractious arena is Giulia Bongiorno, an Italian who, earlier this year, presented a plan to pay a salary to home-makers.
Her reasons for doing so are less about benefit entitlements and labour market stereotypes – more to do with the equality agenda.
She argues that distortions are created by not financially rewarding housework. It dissuades more men from taking on the role and makes vulnerable women dependent on the ‘charity’ of their husbands
Bongiorno’s proposal envisages a monthly allowance being paid to the home worker either by the Italian state or, in households with a “significant income”, by their spouse or partner.
An income paid for by the state is, in my opinion, a non-starter. Forcing spouses to cough-up for housework is also likely to be a marital wedge, rather than a balm. Better to adopt the system long advocated by many campaigners; to give tax-breaks to men and women who support a partner who is too busy running a home to do a job outside it.
That these ideas are being ventilated by high-profile lawyers (Bongiorno was the defence attorney for Rafaelle Sollecito in the Amanda Knox trial) is to be welcomed. Politicians have only succeeded in undermining the status of home workers by curbing or abolishing state assistance for them (think Tory cuts to child benefit in 2013 or Labour’s removal of MIRAS in 2000). Westminster, collectively, has decided that it is only now politically acceptable to support working families, especially parents in the workplace struggling with childcare costs.
Part of the problem is that elected officials cannot risk endorsing a system of payments that may be abused by ‘undeserving’ recipients. They know there is a world of difference between the hard-working homemaker, running a functional family home while their spouse or partner works, and so-called ‘benefits cheats’, who enjoy the state’s charity while living in chaotic domestic circumstances.
So perhaps it must fall to the law and those who draft it (ultimately for politicians to endorse) to ensure that home-makers are rewarded as they should be – according to their merits.