Nested Silences and the Household Economy

June 27, 2014

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the ongoing research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

Visiting Scholar Caitlin Zaloom (New York University) is completing a book on the intimate financial lives of American families. Her research explores how debt, credit, and investment shape Americans’ pursuit of security, prosperity, and stability. She also examines how families discuss the risks and trade-offs involved in using financial tools to pursue better education, housing, and retirement.

In an interview with the Foundation, Zaloom discussed in particular the rise of household budgets, how they relate to the creation of an American middle class, and why the silence around personal finances can have troubling consequences for American families.

Q. As the U.S. struggles to recover from the Great Recession, economics has played a central role in public discourse. Low wages and income inequality continue to generate fierce debate, and the recent excitement around Thomas Piketty’s Capital seems to suggest that the massive wealth gap in the country will remain a topic of concern for a long time. Yet, in your research, you’ve found that individual household economics still tend to remain extremely private. What accounts for this silence around personal finances and why is it such a problem?

The growing public discourse around income inequality is somewhat paradoxical. Although we talk freely about inequality as a social problem, there is very little talk about what is happening inside individual households. Even in times of economic hardship people remain reluctant to discuss their specific financial situations. Americans still very much subscribe to the notion that household finances are a private matter.

There’s another level of silence around household economics too. People do not want discuss their finances with their neighbors or colleagues; but they also don’t want to discuss them with their children. This reluctance creates what I call “nested silences.” In my research, I interview college students and their families about their financial situations. The students frequently have no idea what their parents make. The parents understand their own silence about money as a matter of protection. Many parents believe that by keeping the financial matters of the family to themselves, they allow their children to go forward into the world and become the people that they want to be, to go to the college that they want to go to, in the place where they want to work and live. They don’t want to burden their children by talking about the financial costs of those options.

This silence around household finances is troubling because it can only reinforce the idea that household finances are a private matter. Still, we know that household finances made up of wages and shaped by taxes, government incentives, corporate retirement schemes, and many other public concerns.

Q. Is this phenomenon uniquely American?

One interesting comparative case is China, where the dialogue around money is very different than it is in the U.S. For instance, there is no taboo on discussing wages. The anthropologist Kimberly Chong has found this can be a challenge for multinational companies locating in China. Chinese employees openly discuss how much they make and the employees challenge their bosses, demanding equal pay.

In the U.S., of course, personal worth and financial worth are tightly connected. This means that people often feel shame about divulging how much money they make—even to their family members—let alone openly discussing salaries, debts, or savings.

Q. You explore the history of the term “household budget” and connect its rise to the creation of an American middle class identity. How did the idea of the “home economy” come about, and how has it changed since its inception?

The household budget has a fascinating history. A family budget today actually looks very much like a family budget from 1900—there’s a column for credits, and columns expenses like education, housing, food, entertainment, and so forth. Within the lines of the budget, wages become income. The household budget transforms money earned in the outside world into something that households distribute for their own purposes. Within the budget, each family assigns their own particular values to their money, deciding what to spend it on and what not to spend it on. Of course, these values, which also seem so private, are widely shared and deeply cultural.

Households started to use budgets at the same time that the American middle class was growing and consolidating. The turn of the 20th century was a time of great economic expansion and saw a rise in the number of people with significant disposable income. This meant an increasing number of households that could spend money on the things that we now very much associate with middle class life. The household budget allowed families to take steps toward achieving goals of social advancement, including education for the children, greater wages, and investment in household design and maintenance.

Today we have budgeting tools like Mint.com and financial advisers like Suze Orman. Today’s financial planning tools and advice are extensions of the 1900 household budget, only now they appear on your computer screen or phone or television instead of a piece of paper. But they perform the same sort of trick—which is both an accounting and a moral trick. They render household financial problems entirely private. For example, if a family can’t afford a college education, personal financial advice most often points to a failure to budget well or save enough. In other words, achieving middle class status today is seen as a problem of the individual household, and not a matter of depressed wages, rising college costs, or a badly-functioning retirement system. Keeping the silence around finances only strengthens the idea that the problems of the wider economy can and should be solved within private households. We would be better off to broaden public discussions of inequality to include our own struggles.

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