Control and Transfer of Household Assets
In chapter 4, we saw Vermont family day-care providers dealing with parents of the children they supervised (Nelson 1990). But the income they generated this way became crucial assets for their own household survival. For these providers, earnings from child care averaged more than a third of their total household income. According to Margaret Nelson, the presence of that income generally bolstered women’s say in household affairs. However, those monies did not simply flow easily into household coffers. The women’s income became a matter of continuous negotiation over whose money
it was, how it would be spent, and how it defined relations among household members.
Husbands tended to protect their positions by labeling their wives’ income from child care as supplementary, in contrast to the essential money brought in by the male wage earner. Even when the female provider’s earnings were crucial to the household’s survival, husbands and wives kept the monies gendered. Nelson discovered that “when his money pays for these [essential] things, they are necessary; when her money does, they are extras.” As one husband put it, the wife provides “fun” money (Nelson 1990: 133). The wife in another household elaborated further: “What he makes there is mainly like insurance, taxes, and all that. What I make usually goes for food, clothing—whatever I find necessary to spend my babysitting money on or just to take the kids once a week to Middlebury and blow it” (132; see also Romero 1992: 64). Some husbands further marked the boundary between their income and their wives’ by failing to report her earnings for tax purposes.
Ironically, Nelson found that if the spouses earmarked the two incomes by placing them into separate accounts, the husband more easily treated his wife’s money as discretionary income that could be spent on gifts, entertainment, and other nonessentials. In an extreme case, one husband seized command over his wife’s monies. The wife reported: “It bothered me a little bit [because] I thought the money was going one way and it wasn’t. … I let him get control of the money. .. . It’s my money but it’s gone before you knew it. … At Christmas it was crazy. He went out and bought these things and I couldn’t understand it—all these extravagant things” (131).
Nelson describes husbands and wives in these households as creating a “fiction”—a story defending the husband’s sense of masculinity. “Predictably,” comments Nelson, “women who actually make more money than their partners experience extreme tension in maintaining this fiction” (134). Where the household could not survive without the female provider’s income, Nelson nevertheless found that husbands were more likely to recognize the seriousness of her efforts. In multiple ways, therefore, as these Vermont childcare providers managed their income, they were simultaneously defining relations within their households. The fictions people created played their own parts in defining husband-wife relationships.
Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s close study of Japanese-American women’s involvement in domestic service reveals some subtle variations on household financial negotiations. Glenn interviewed forty-eight women drawn from three generations of Japanese Americans on the West Coast: first-generation immigrants (issei), second-generation (nisei), and war brides, the post-World War II immigrants. All of them brought in income from domestic service, but an interesting difference from the Vermont families showed up in Glenn’s study: these women were much more likely to keep their money separate and even secret from their husbands. The pattern was even more decisive among war brides than among the other generations; four of the twelve war brides Glenn interviewed concealed their actual earnings from their husbands while the rest kept their monies outside the family pool, “earmarked for special expenses or personal bills” (Glenn 1986 233). Mrs. Bentley, one of the war brides who hid the amount of her earnings from her husband, explained, “I can do with it what I want,” and Glenn witnessed her determination to keep it that way: “I was asking her about her hourly rate just as her husband walked through the room. She glanced up conspiratorially and shook her head. After he left, she whispered the amount into the tape recorder” (140).
Another respondent, Kazuko Frankel, “also kept her husband in the dark about how much she earned and maintained her money in a separate account on the grounds that ‘It’s none of his business’ ” (140). The war brides’ more extreme strategies, according to Glenn, resulted from the women’s lack of social support from their kin, their arrival in an unfamiliar environment, and their more fragile relations with their spouses. Thus, once again, income does not remain simply income, but, in this case, becomes a tool with which vulnerable women negotiate relations to their husbands.
As the stories from Vermont day-care providers and the West Coast domestic workers imply, budgets are a crucial site of bargaining and conflict over the proper definition of household relations. A study of New York Dominican immigrants by Sherri Gras –
muck and Patricia Pessar produced a series of striking findings regarding changing arrangements based on gender:
• Prior to migration, most Dominican couples’ household budgets were male-controled, even when wives contributed income.
• Women’s income in these households was usually earmarked for nonessential collective expenses, not their personal consumption.
• Pooling of income in premigration households was almost exclusively a female-headed household strategy.
• After migration, as Dominican wives increasingly took paid jobs, most Dominican couples transformed their budgetary practices, shifting to a pooled income system that blurred distinctions between essential and peripheral incomes.
• Democratization of budgetary practices increased women’s autonomy and their determination to remain in the United States.
• New conflicts emerged over allocation of household monies: wives spent on homes, home furnishings, and other durable goods ensuring long-time residence; husbands opted to save funds destined for their eventual return to the Dominican Republic.
For Dominican couples, budgetary practices were one combustible site where they worked out transformations in gender relations. “Not infrequently,” note Grasmuck and Pessar, “[the financial strategy] places the man at odds with his spouse, who has embarked on an opposing financial course” (Grasmuck and Pessar 1992: 158; for similar observations on Mexican immigrants, see Hirsch 2003). Sometimes negotiations failed: they report that a key precipitating factor in five of the eighteen cases of divorce they encountered was the husband’s return to the Dominican Republic with his savings while the wife remained in the United States.
Controversies concerned not only short-term disposition of household income but also long-term relations of the household to kin and friends at the point of origin. Indeed, these Dominican
immigrants devoted a significant part of their New York income to remittances going back to the Dominican Republic. Grasmuck and Pessar estimate that in the 1980s, about a third of Santiago de los Caballeros city residents received a significant share of their income from remittances. Remittance-receiving households in Santiago achieved a better standard of living than those that did not have relatives in the United States sending them monies. Some fifteen years later, in Miraflores, another Dominican Republic town, according to Peggy Levitt almost 40 percent of households reported that three-quarters or more of their income came from remittances (Levitt 2001b: 200). For the Dominican Republic as a whole, the 1996 official total of incoming remittances came to $1.14 billion.
Remittances thus maintain long-distance household ties between the emigrants and people back home. We can therefore better understand conflict and bargaining within households by looking directly at these immigrant transactions. More visibly than husband – wife struggles, remittances involve a whole set of third parties— children, grandparents, siblings, and others. What is more, they transform households at both origin and destination. Levitt describes how this transnational economy operates. In her close observation of ties between Miraflores and the Boston suburb of Jamaica Plain, where many of the Dominican townspeoples’ relatives migrated, Levitt notes that
fashion, food, and forms of speech, as well as appliances and home decorating styles, attest to these strong connections. In Miraflores, villagers often dress in T-shirts emblazoned with the names of businesses in Massachusetts, although they do not know what these words or logos mean. They proudly serve their visitors coffee with Cremora and juice made from Tang. (Levitt 2001a: 2; see also Levitt 2004)
Nonmigrant Dominicans, in turn, often provide their migrant relatives with care for the children they have left behind, supervise their local affairs, and treat them as “royal guests” during visits. Forty-year-old Cecilia, who has three siblings in Boston, for instance: “wants to give something back to her brothers and sisters, but she is exhausted when they leave” (Levitt 2001a: 90). Levitt points out that narrow economic interchange is only part of the remittance flow; she calls attention to what she calls “social remittances,” the transfer of “ideas, behaviors, identities, and social capital that flow from host to sending-country communities” (54). Social and material remittances, however, do not constitute separate streams; in both cases people are fashioning and refashioning meaningful social relations, in some cases with consumer goods, in others with belief systems, social practices, or network connections.
Such connections between immigrant origins and destinations create households whose members move back and forth between continents. Interviewing Salvadoran immigrant children in San Francisco, Cecilia Menjivar heard their longing to reunite with their grandparents. She reports her conversation with nineteen-year-old Edwin M: “[He] told me that he misses his grandmother and often worries about her. He wants to get a job so that he can send remittances to her regularly and send her a plane ticket so that she can come to visit.” So too, with Carolina and Ileana A., who “with their eyes watery. . . expressed the wish to have [their grandparents] close. . .. When they started earning an income, they saved money to send to their grandparents for airfare so that they could come to the United States for a visit” (Menjivar 2000: 268n.9).
A common pattern for Latin American immigrants is for children of U. S. residents to grow up largely in their community of origin, raised by grandparents, uncles, aunts, or other relatives. The remittance stream here goes partly to support the children and partly to maintain ties with their caretakers at home (Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 2002). This applies not only to Latin Americans but also to immigrant parents from the Philippines and other parts of the world (see for example Parrenas 2001). Transnational parenting does not always proceed smoothly. Levitt, for instance, reports children’s occasional manipulation of their Dominican caretakers: “They know the grandparents need the money their parents send. They use this as a bargaining chip, threatening to tell their parents if their grandparents do something they do not like” (Levitt 2001a: 78). And a Miraflores resident complained to Levitt:
The kids are just waiting, holding over the grandparents the envelope that comes every month.. .. You can’t discipline them because it is their parents who are sending the money. They say, I will let my parents know what is happening here and they will stop sending so much money back to you. My sister sends $200 a month to support my nephew. When I was his age I was already working in the conuco (the fields) producing something.
That kid does not do anything. He is a leech. (79)
These quick vignettes of arrangements for control and transfer of money illustrate the relational stakes of economic activity within households. Far from a Monopoly game in which people deploy stylized cash in pursuit of their own individual advantage, we find household members, children included, bargaining consequentially over their relations. The examples at hand, to be sure, fall far short of covering the great range of variation across American households. Interpersonal relations within households, monetary practices, and bargaining strategies vary significantly by class, income, ethnicity, and household composition. Same-sex and unmarried cohabiting households behave differently in some of these regards from married heterosexuals with children (see Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Carrington 1999; Kenney 2004). Commuter couples who work far apart create their own special syntheses of economic life and intimacy.
Transfer and control of assets, furthermore, includes inheritance, dowry, gifts, interhousehold loans, provision of personal services, lending ofinfluence with outside authorities, and shifts in ownership or occupancy of family-controled dwellings. Through all these variations, nevertheless, we rediscover the same basic principle: once households are operating, transfer and control of assets to, from, or within them inevitably affect the structure and meaning of relations among household members. As a consequence, they frequently generate struggle not just over who gets what but also over structure and meaning.