American critics of conspicuous and wasteful consumption rarely single out housing. Most frequently they fix on consumer durables such as automobiles, electronic devices, household appliances, and furniture. Although we may deplore excesses in all those regards, the acquisition and use of such items neatly illustrates how consumption simultaneously activates household social relations, shapes those relations, involves negotiation among household members, and represents the household’s social location to outsiders. Lizabeth Cohen, who has chronicled the great expansion of U. S. consumer activity after World War II, points to the close connections between purchase of homes and acquisition of other consumer durables:
Buying homes, particularly new ones, motivated consumers to purchase things to put in them, and thereby helped stoke the crucial consumer durables market. Billions of dollars were transacted in the sale of household appliances and furnishings, as refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, and the like became standard features in postwar American homes. (Cohen 2003:123)
House buying also led to automobile purchases, especially with the proliferation of suburbs, shopping malls, and long commutes. Between 1946 and 1955, in what Cohen calls the postwar “consumers’ republic,” sales of new cars quadrupled; by the end of the ’50s,
three-quarters of U. S. households owned at least one car (123). Much like household appliances such as vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and refrigerators, far from minimizing effort, the car paradoxically spawned a whole series of new, demanding domestic activities. For instance, as delivery services dwindled, housewives now drove to the grocery story, the butcher’s shop, or the supermarket to purchase their families’ foodstuffs. They also became resident chauffeurs, driving children to parties or other activities (Cowan 1983; Vanek 1974).
In rural areas, cars similarly became the object of new household strategies and division of labor. At first, as rural automobile use expanded after World War I, cars were mostly a man’s possession, assimilated to rural work as another practical farm tool, much like a tractor. When farm wives wanted to shop, they waited for their husbands to take them (Barron 1997). But as women began to drive, the automobile, instead of easing their work, once again, often multiplied their tasks. Here’s the experience of an Ohio farm wife in 1919. Before the family acquired a car, she had established a butter and egg route that took a great deal of her time. With the car, she expanded the business, but also increased her other household tasks:
One morning [she] cooked that night’s dinner in a “fireless cooker” [an insulated box in which a boiled dinner could cook all day], drove forty-one miles to visit her daughter in Cleveland, shopped in the city in the afternoon, then drove home in time to put a late supper on the table from the fireless cooker. .. . After the car was bought she could wash the breakfast dishes, sweep the kitchen, and then get to her customers [on the butter and egg route] as early as before, and generally get home in time to serve the dinner.” (Kline 2000: 84, citing Rural New Yorker)
Three-quarters of a century later, in contemporary urban middle – class America, a second car has become a necessity for many households. Despite making some parts of life easier, the second car produces an even more complicated set of claims and counterclaims on
transportation. “With Mom in the workforce and the family located even further from the city’s center,” note Warren and Tyagi (2003), “that second car became the only means for running errands, earning a second income, and getting by in the far-flung suburbs” (47). In rural, urban, and suburban America, people reshaped family life as they acquired automobiles. The house and the automobile dramatize a more general process: the interplay between household social relations and consumption. All households craft connections between the goods and services they use and the quality of their collective social lives.
Revealing results occur when households receive large sums of money all at once. This can happen through prizes, bonuses, lottery winnings, legal settlements, inheritances, or income tax refunds. Because the American government has experimented with the earned income tax credit and related programs as a way of encouraging families to exit from poverty and welfare, researchers have compiled an unusual amount of evidence concerning the effect of such windfalls on low-income households (for details, see, for example, Meyer and Holtz-Eakin 2002; Mayer 1997). How, they ask, do families use their tax credits? Far from treating lump-sum payments as simply more income of the same old kind, household members typically distinguish “tax money” from “paycheck money,” often earmarking tax money for exceptional commitments, such as down payments on houses, buying cars, consumer durables, school tuition, children’s wardrobes, family celebrations, and liquidation of major debts.
For example, Carlotta Saylor, a forty-one-year-old mother of five boys, worked two jobs: as part-time preschool aide during the school year and full-time summer day camp counselor. Interviewed at a rundown Louisville, Kentucky, public-housing project in 1997, Saylor reported how, besides taking care of some bills, she had spent the previous year’s $2,000 earned income tax credit: “I bought a washer and paid cash for it. .. . It was the first time I ever paid cash for anything. I got a washer that was brand-new… . Then I went to the grocery store and made a big purchase. And I took each of the kids shopping and got them new school clothes and supplies” (Shirk, Bennet, and Aber 1999: 128). Saylor also indulged her children with a movie and the rare experience of a restaurant meal. She had different plans for the current year’s tax credit. Hoping to save most of the money, she said:
I want to buy me a house. … It doesn’t have to be anything grand—just a little house, with four bedrooms and a basement, so the kids have some place to play when it’s cold. .. . They are always talking on TV about how important it is to eat family dinners together. .. . Here, we don’t have room for a table. It’d be nice to all sit down together at a table someday (Shirk, Ben – net, and Aber 1999: 128-29)
In a follow-up visit two years later, the interviewers found the Saylor family living in a rent-subsidized Louisville two-story, four-bedroom house, with a large kitchen and a backyard. But Saylor still could not afford the kitchen table necessary for the dreamed family gathering.
A systematic 1998 study reports earned income tax credit expenditures by 650 low-income Chicago-area taxpaying single parents and two-parent families. The study looks at two categories of expenses: “making ends meet,” or consumption use (utility, rent, food, clothes, durables), and “improving economic and social mobility,” or asset building. The latter include moving, car or transportation, saving, and tuition or other schooling expenses. The authors found that almost 70 percent of their respondents anticipated spending at least some of their tax credit for economic and social mobility, with cars and schooling heading the list. But 65 percent also planned to spend part of the money for more immediate consumption, largely on utility bills, rent, purchasing food and clothing. The distribution of first priorities ran as follows:
50 percent 13 percent 12 percent
Purchase or repair car
Debts took priority over consumer expenditures, but household purchases loomed large (Smeeding, Phillips, and O’Connor 2002: 312).
A parallel ethnography of forty-two low-income Wisconsin families with young children who received payments from income tax refunds and/or tax credits produced similar findings. Households treated tax credits as something quite different from their routine income, as money they could spend on important improvements in their family lives. Furthermore, despite any skepticism we might feel about people’s stated intentions, in fact, the families generally followed through and spent the lump-sum money on the same categories as we saw earlier. They did not simply pour the money into their weekly income stream. Instead, they paid bills, saved some, spent on children’s tuition, bought household appliances, invested in cars, and so on. One woman “from a close-knit extended family,” the authors report, “gave money to family members to make an insurance payment, knowing that they would help her if needed” (Romich and Weisner 2002: 383).
A significant share of the lump-sum tax income went to expenditures on children, especially clothing. The mother of two young children explained: “When my taxes come. .. I’ll take the kids shopping because my kids really need to go shopping… especially [my older son]…. I can’t send my son to school like this. Once I get the money, you know, send in all the papers—my W2 thing, [I] go to Wal-Mart and Kmart and just stock up” (382-83). After the fact, moreover, most families, the authors note, pointed to some household item purchased with their previous tax credit: a couch, a bed, tables, a refrigerator, a stove, a television, or a car. Some even pointed to the house itself.
Let me issue three warnings, however, against concluding that windfall money simply flows immediately to virtuous uses. First,
some recipients of quick money go on binges, buy extravagant objects, or other indulgences. Second, other kin and friends frequently make claims on such found money, which therefore does not end up in the recipient’s own household. Third, who gets the money makes a critical difference: for example, payments to women are much more likely to produce benefits for children (see Kenney 2002; Lundberg, Pollak, and Wales 1997).
These qualifications simply fortify the main point: within and across households, income catalyzes relational work. We can see this clearly in the case of same-sex couples. Dealing with a substantial sample of gay and lesbian households from the San Francisco Bay Area, Christopher Carrington underlines the importance of what he calls “consumption work.” Through interviews and observation, Carrington identified a remarkably wide range of consumption activities, including browsing catalogs, magazines, and newspapers; consulting brochures, books, and etiquette manuals (for example, for instruction on gift-giving); listening to radio or television advertising; consulting other lesbian and gay families; comparison shopping in grocery stores or department stores; phoning goods and service providers; keeping files with instructional manuals and service information; commuting to megastores; waiting on the phone, in line at the store, at the post office, or at ATM machines; and determining the affordability of particular goods and services.
Carrington brings out three points of great importance for our inquiry: first, that the acquisition of a house and consumer durables represented the stability and long-term prospect of the couple’s relationship; second, that within these couples, commonly a specialization in different kinds of consumption work emerged; and third, that consumption routinely involved negotiation with members of the household and other kin. “From purchasing their first futon to selecting a home for retirement,” Carrington found, “lesbigay families conceive of these consumption work-laden acts as symbols of family and relational solidarity” (Carrington 1999: 173).
Listen to how Bill Fagan, one of Carrington’s respondents, an artist and the household’s “consumption worker,” talks about shopping: “I find that I am thinking about all kinds of stuff about our house when I go out to shop. Like I will be thinking of presents for Rick’s [his partner’s] birthday, or gifts for my nephews for Christmas, when I go, or I will get ideas about how to improve things in the house” (152). In another case, purchasing required subtle household diplomacy. Michael Herrera recounted his efforts to persuade Federico Monterosa, his partner of four years, to purchase a fancy coffee maker:
It was quite an effort to convince Freddy that we should get it.
He doesn’t drink coffee too much. … Or if we got one, he only wanted a cheap one. … I had to come up with a good reason to get a nicer one and spend more money. So, it turned out that Freddy’s parents were coming to San Francisco and were planning to stay with us. Freddy’s mom likes coffee, and so I made the case that we should buy a nice coffee maker to make her feel at home. . . because it was kind of hard on her when Freddy came out to her and all. With that, he agreed and we went to Macy’s and bought a decent coffee maker. (156)
In this vignette, we see Michael and Federico realigning their relations to each other and to their families.