What is the place of the household in capitalism? Two generations ago, feminist scholars refuted economic notions that centered capitalism on the individual, demonstrating that industrial capitalism relied on the household for reproduction. But what about capitalism today? The rise of finance has subordinated production to financial profits and provoked states and corporations to slough off their duty to their citizens and workers. Haven’t these processes realized the individual that capitalism’s boosters have always envisioned at its core? To the contrary. Even though finance seems to elevate individual responsibility to new heights, financial capitalism remains deeply dependent on households, even as it obscures their significance.
Finance hides the household behind the fictional individual of the financial contract. We should not fall for the sleight of hand. Financial contracts may tie individuals to the legal responsibilities of debt, credit, and investment, but both risk-taking and repayment—with interest—implicate broader household economies. To understand financial capitalism more fully, we need to assess the shape of the household revealed in financial processes and examine the gains it produces for government and industry alike.
Industrial capitalism’s demands created and rested on family-waged, heterosexual, nuclear, male-headed households. Profits in the factory were made on the backs of households that produced its workers and consumers. Feminist scholars in anthropology, history, sociology, and economics revealed that the unpaid work of building these social units was critical to reproducing industrial capitalism itself.
The rise of finance has constituted a major shift in capitalism and its most basic social unit, other scholars argue. Social scientists have shown that industry and government together favored finance and fueled its growth, creating and encouraging the spread of new kinds of financial products, like the mutual fund–invested, government-advantaged retirement accounts we know by their tax-code monikers as 401(k)s and 403(b)s (see Davis 2009; Epstein 2005; Krippner 2011; Van der Zwan 2014). Financialization has shifted responsibility from corporations and government to individuals, the argument goes. A new onus has followed. Today, financial pressures encourage workers and consumers alike to believe—or simply to act as if—they alone should answer for their well-being. This narrative renews the notion that the individual holds pride of place as capitalism’s basic social unit.
The household has disappeared. Again.
Where did it go? In the 1980s, Jane Guyer (1981) dissected the category of the household in the research programs of development economics. She showed the mismatch between the household of economists’ measures and the relationships that made farming work in West Africa. Today, we can follow Guyer’s lead by taking a sharp knife to economic categories, especially those that hide the household inside the details of financial operations.
Take student financing. In the United States, loans for higher education have now exceeded the $1 trillion mark. We call the bulk of higher education financing “student debt,” a name that draws attention to the graduates held formally accountable for repaying loans. Yet we should not buy into the terms of debt contracts at face value.
In my research with middle-class U.S. families, I’ve found that paying for higher education depends upon the widely varied relations and responsibilities that stretch across residences and generations. These complexities create a mismatch with the social units embedded in the financial instruments of student aid. Guyer’s astute observations remain accurate across continents and decades.
What, then, is the model of the financial household? Picking apart the details of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can expose its form, one that clashes with middle-class families’ contemporary lives. Each year, tens of millions of young adults and their parents will submit the application; it is the gateway to federal and state financial assistance. The FAFSA mobilizes this version of the household to gather data on income and assets, generating a measure of household “strength.” Access to assistance depends on parents’ financial histories and obligations recognized in the household form. Among high-income countries it is unusual to tie student aid to household finances in this way.
Take Sweden, for instance. University students in the famously generous welfare state carry among the highest debt loads. But this is precisely because student aid is not a household problem. Grants and loans go to students as a benefit of their citizenship. Neither the Swedish government nor young people expect families to contribute to the support of young adults once they leave the home. And graduates pay off their loans on terms that take only their own income into account. America is supposed to be the more individualistic society, but Sweden is the one that treats its young adults as independent.
In the United States, families must pay for the higher educations that will open the future for their children. The federal government requires families to contribute financially if they want assistance. It distributes support differentially based on household earnings and histories. This requires a household measurement, which in turn requires a unit to be measured. The FAFSA household consists of coresident parents and children.
The form’s questions ask for parents’ financial details and for expenses related to their children, but it ignores parents’ financial obligations and supports outside a tight legal definition of dependence. For instance, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and chosen family who receive or give domestic support vanish from its picture. It also reduces divorced families to a single household measure, taking into account only the coresident parent’s income. In eliminating extended relations from its consideration, FAFSA draws on industrial capitalism’s nuclear family and hardly reconfigures it for the twenty-first century.1
The past four decades have seen family structure radically transformed. In the United States today, divorce, remarriage, single parenthood, and periods of solo living have created greater complexity in American families’ forms and their interconnections (Cherlin 2014). Only those at the top of the spectrum of income and wealth are likely to maintain nuclear families, statistically speaking. For everyone else, the nuclear family is no longer the most common way to live or raise children.
FAFSA does nod to these changes. It allows for a single parent to file, although two-parent households remain the default. It also does not assume that sex or gender structures either marriage or household income. It does not require one parent to identify as the household head, presuming that one parent’s wage is primary over the other. Instead the form asks Parent 1 and Parent 2 to fill in the blank associated with their respective wages. Still, the household of student finance maintains its nuclear shape, counting coresidence and financial responsibility together.
Reprising a theme from her work in the late 1970s, Sylvia Yanagisako (2001) alerted us to the problems of confusing residence and reproduction. Apparently, we need reminding. Kinship and locality represent two discrete frameworks of organization, she notes. When anthropologists and others collapse responsibility and coresidence, they import a model of European and American nuclear families into situations where that description does not hold. This slippage carries real-world implications.
The idealized nuclear family does not reflect the relations and responsibilities of U.S. households, yet the federal government assigns financial burdens and delivers assistance through these terms. The FAFSA represents much more than a measurement tool. It is a set of instructions on how middle-class families should act, which relations to consider primary, and which should not include financial responsibilities. It also tells them that their children’s futures will be expensive and that they will have to bear those costs, together, on their own.
1. Legal guardians are defined as parents for the purposes of the FAFSA.
Cherlin, Andrew. 2014. Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class American Family. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Davis, Gerald. 2009. Managed by the Markets: How Finance Reshaped America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Epstein, Gerald. 2005. Financialization and the World Economy. London: Elgar.
Guyer, Jane I. 1981. “Household and Community in African Studies.” African Studies Review 24, no. 2: 87–137.
Krippner, Greta. 2011. Capitalizing on Crisis: The Political Origins of the Rise of Finance. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Van der Zwan, Natasha. 2014. “Making Sense of Financialization.” Socio-Economic Review 12: 99–129.
Yanagisako, Sylvia. 1979. “Family and Household: The Analysis of Domestic Groups.” Annual Review of Anthropology 8: 161–205.
_____. 2001. “Household in Anthropology.” In International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, 6930–34.