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What exactly does 'worthy' look like?

Updated Tuesday, 26th February 2008
It might be useful to remind ourselves of the qualities that never come to be calculated when we take stock of our own and others’ worth to society.

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Housework How much is each one of us worth? And where do we find this answer? Some of us will look at our life insurance policies and quote the figure that our family might get if we were to die. Others may have a critical illness policy that places this value through what the family would get if we were unable to work anymore, say due to illness. And still others may think of the Valentine’s day flowers they received just a week ago and decide that they are priceless – at least to someone! And I am sure there are some who have never felt they needed to ask themselves that question, or indeed have anyone ask it of them – they know their value and so do others.

Certain individuals always seem to raise more questions about worthiness than others – migrants being an obvious category as evidenced by all the discussion on how migrants can prove they are worthy of citizenship in the UK.

‘Housewives’ are another. This week a poll of 4,000 housewives for an online networking website ‘suggested that the average mum worked for nearly nine hours a day every day. The website said a housewife would earn almost £30,000 a year if she was employed to do all the same errands.’ This is significantly higher than the UK’s average annual wage of £23,700.

There is a lot going on in this snippet – for one, ‘housewives’ is not a category we hear much about any more so it had me intrigued as to why we don’t really hear much about this ‘category’ anymore. Have they fallen off all policy agendas and media interest? Or are they now called something else? In this snippet it is also assumed that all housewives are mums – has the model of the working woman become so ubiquitous that the only ‘housewives’ in the country are mums? What of women, who do not have children, are they not housewives too? And then the article calls what a housewife does ‘errands’ – cleaning the toilet never feels like an errand to me!

But what really riveted me in reading this piece was the fact that yet again we see a desire to calculate the value of housework. Back in 1972 Chase Manhattan Bank estimated the value of housework undertaken per household in the US at $257 per week. In 1978 Canadian housework was valued at 40% of GNP. By 1984 in Germany the value of "house and family work" was estimated at three times total government expenditure. Clearly, these attempts at calculation have been going on for some time now.

Social scientists too are in on the act. In the 1970s most of the analysis of housework revolved around the sexual division of housework and its economic value in a capitalist society. Feminists argued that women who did most of the housework without pay within their own households contributed to the economy by subsidizing the family wage and by ensuring the growth of the next generation of workers at a rate far cheaper than that which could be purchased in the market. And some feminists argued for the need to place a value on housework so that those who did housework would be adequately and appropriately remunerated. As Selma James, one of the founder members of the Wages for Housework Campaign said many years ago "Work that is not valued is not happening and therefore cannot be refused".

However, for other feminists there was something about the love and affection that went into ironing children’s clothes and in cooking their food which was never easily calculable. They argued that the psychological and the ideological aspects of housework were omitted in economic calculations of ‘worth’. As Diane Elson, an economist, argued in 1991, household work cannot be assessed solely in terms of its economic utility as it has an intrinsic value and not merely an instrumental value. The emotional elements of housework contribute as much to society even though there may be no way of counting exactly what these contributions are worth. And then there may be other elements of housework that never come into calculations. They plainly do not qualify for calculation – indeed, they may even resist any attempts to put a value on them. And if we were to be humble we could even say that we simply do not know what they are worth.

So today when we weigh up yet again how much housewives are worth, it might be useful to remind ourselves of how worth is counted up and the qualities that never come to be calculated when we take stock of our own and others’ worth to society. Perhaps, it is that incalculable quality that the Valentine’s card evokes. And one day we may even be able to extend that incalculable worthiness to the strangers around us – to recognise the limits of simply numerically evaluating the ‘worth of migrants’ to the UK.


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