Household Consumption and Distribution
Students of contemporary America have often thought that households are nothing but sites of consumption, and have thought of consumption primarily as an expression of households’ social position. But, alerted by the profusion of economic activity involved in the transfer and control of household assets, we can see immediately that neither of these assumptions will hold up to close scrutiny. Critics also often regard consumption as a light-headed, somewhat frivolous dimension of economic life, with potentially corrupting influence over households’ moral fiber. While such concerns may of course be occasionally warranted, they fail to capture the conse – quentiality and meaningful involvement of consumption in households’ most vital interactions.
Consumption’s place in household social relations ranges from the purchase, preparation, and distribution of food to the acquisition of such status markers as luxury automobiles and swimming pools. In earlier chapters, we have already seen how acts of consumption that might seem to be nothing but practical steps to survival—for example, purchase, preparation, and consumption of food—take on significance as definitions of interpersonal relations. Surprisingly, U. S. immigration inspectors build that insight into their screening procedures for green card applicants. Concerned to identify spurious commercially motivated marriages, inspectors regularly ask questions about the household’s possessions as a gauge of the green
card applicants’ actual knowledge of his or her putative household’s everyday interactions. Here are some sample interview questions:
• How many telephones are in your house? Where are they?
• How many televisions are in the house? In which rooms? Do you watch shows together, or separately?
• How many cars do you have?
• What is the color of your microwave oven? ( Bray 2001: 1314; Famuyide 2002: 56).
Far beyond this narrow focus, however, household consumption and distribution both broadcast and influence the members’ public standing, their relations to other households, and their internal social relations. To illustrate that range without by any means exhausting it, let us review just three important areas of intersection between consumption and household life: housing, purchase of consumer durables, and children’s connections to goods and services.
Consider the purchase of a home, the most significant investment for most households. In their challenging analysis of middle-class expenditures at the turn of the twenty-first century, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi dispute what they call the “overconsumption myth” of American spending. Families, they argue, are not frittering away their paychecks with useless purchases of brand-name clothing, unnecessary trips, or elaborate second homes. Instead, the bulk of the average middle-class American family’s income goes toward the purchase of a home. Not a particularly elaborate home, either. According to their study, most husbands and wives pay skyrocketing real estate prices primarily to secure preferred safe neighborhoods with good schools for their children: “Families put Mom to work, used up the family’s economic reserves, and took on crushing debt loads in sacrifice to these twin gods [safety and education], all in the hope of offering their children the best possible start in life” (Warren and Tyagi 2003: 23).
The acquisition and use of housing affects household life in three fundamental ways. First, whether rented or bought, for most households a home represents the largest single financial investment the household ever makes. For purchasers, furthermore, housing typically involves the most onerous single category of month-to-month household expenditure, the major store of wealth, the most momentous site of gifts and loans linking the household with outside relatives, and the major form of wealth for transmission to the next generation. In the United States, wealth inequality outside of the very rich depends mainly on home ownership, and transmits from one generation to the next chiefly through home ownership (Conley 1999; Oliver and Shapiro 1997). Second, acquiring a particular kind of housing assumes a weighty set of commitments, conscious or unconscious. It announces a program for household identity and activity. It also deeply affects subsequent self-representation, social relations outside the household, and daily interactions within the household. By renting or buying a place to live in a particular location, household members are inserting themselves practically and symbolically into a web of social contacts. Third, actual management and use of housing involves day-to-day negotiation and conflict over rights and obligations, including such diverse questions as which activities go on in which spaces; who has rights to privacy; who must clean, repair, or maintain what features of the dwelling; and what decorations are appropriate or inappropriate where.
The housing that people actually purchase or rent therefore significantly affects their self-conceptions and their relations to others. Speaking especially of high school graduates from the early 1970s, Nicholas Townsend describes a “package deal” that seals membership of American men and their households in the middle class. The package contains four items: holding a steady job, being married, having children, and owning a home. Home ownership, according to Townsend, anchors the other three items by advertising respectable employment, providing a base for life inside and outside the household, and locating the household visibly in the American structure of class and race. The home matters so much, Townsend reports, that its acquisition often involves extraordinary efforts on the husband’s part including “turning to kin, increasing their hours of employment, commuting farther, and relying on their wives’ income” (Townsend 2002: 139). Aid from kin, Townsend reports, includes various forms of assistance, such as “a father’s mortgage, a loan from their parents, a gift of the down payment, subsidized rent” (150). The men also received nonfinancial help such as cosigning a mortgage, living with parents rent-free while saving for a down payment, and buying from a relative below market price (Townsend 1996). In addition, most men reported that they saw the likelihood of family assistance—especially their own parents’—in case of financial crisis as a crucial form of insurance.
Townsend’s respondents were men in their late thirties, from varied social backgrounds, all of whom had graduated from the same San Francisco Bay Area high school. They typically acknowledged receiving substantial family help of one kind or another in their first home purchase: help included both direct financial assistance, guarantees such as cosigning a mortgage, and other nonfinancial support in finding or building the house. The men, however, downplayed that help in favor of self-portraits representing their own capacities to provide their households with adequate, appropriate shelter. Listen to Jack, a college graduate employed in an unskilled public service job, reporting how he had purchased the home he now lived in with his wife and two young children:
I did not buy this house totally by myself. I could have. I put down the whole down payment myself. … I have a sister two years younger than me, and I think she was living in an apartment. So I said, “Why don’t I help her? We’ll buy the house together. She’ll pay me back later, half the down payment.” . ..
We had a plan to keep the house for five years and I would buy her half of the equity out. She could buy herself a condominium or whatever. She’d still be in an apartment if I didn’t help her.. ..
My parents actually paid me back her half of the down payment on the house, which was fine. I just put that money in the bank.
And I bought her out four years later. (Townsend 2002: 147).
This pride in home ownership takes a terrible blow when middle – class breadwinners lose their jobs and thus their ability to keep on paying their housing expenses. Katherine Newman watched this harsh process closely. She interviewed 150 Americans, who for different reasons had “fallen from grace,” experiencing the sort of frightening downward mobility typically ignored by sunnier stories of Americans’ social success. She spoke to divorced mothers, displaced managers, fired air traffic controllers, and blue-collar workers who had suffered a plant closing. As she heard from managers who had lost high-ranking jobs, Newman found that having to give up their family home represented the worst disgrace. It became “the watershed event in the life cycle of downward mobility,” publicly announcing that the family had “truly lost their membership card in the middle class” (Newman 1988: 102).
But the loss reached farther than a decline in social status. It meant losing the family’s crucial site for social activity, interaction, and security. John Steinberg, one of Newman’s respondents, retained painful memories from that process. Eight years after his father lost his job, the family had to sell their three-story house: “Letting go of that house was one of the hardest things we ever had to do. We felt like we were pushed out of the place we had grown up in. None of the rental houses my family lived in after that ever felt like home. You know, we had a roof over our heads, but losing that house made us feel a little like gypsies” (102). That is why families clung to their homes, often making extraordinary sacrifices before finally putting the house for sale.
Divorced women had similar experiences when they lost the incomes oftheir husbands, but retained the houses. The house loomed even larger, Newman found, for women who had grown up during the Depression, at a time when a family’s worst fear was eviction. For these women, the house represented a base for their shattered families, an investment in the family’s future, a guarantee of stability in their children’s friendships, and a setting for family celebrations. Women therefore hung on to their houses long past the point of economic prudence. Upkeep often suffered as a consequence. Jacqueline Johansen, a mother of three, divorced after twenty-five years of marriage to a northern California dentist, held on to an expensive large house she could no longer afford to maintain properly. She told Newman: “I have no money to fix up the house. Everything in it is destroyed now. The roof leaks and I can’t afford to fix it. It was my dream house; now the image is being destroyed and I can’t do anything to stop it” (213). Those mothers who sold their houses and moved to poorer neighborhoods did, as expected, face disruption, but unexpectedly, some of them reported that the downward skid produced greater solidarity between mother and children (227). Acquisition and loss of houses fundamentally affects relations within middle-class households.