Monday, 27 August 2012

Diversity of Income Streams?

In Cottage Economy (1822), William Cobbett argued the case for hand-crafting within the household as a means of supplementing the family income. He saw the teaching of practical skills at home as providing sound learning opportunities for children. He deplored the mounting economic pressure for parents and children to sell their very souls into wage slavery in a factory, mill or coal mine:

“One of the great misfortunes of England at this day is, that the land has had taken away from it those employments for its women and children which were so necessary to the well-being of the agricultural labourer. The spinning, the carding, the reeling, the knitting; these have been all taken away from the [cottage out-workers], and given to the Lords of the Loom. But let the landholder mark how the change has operated to produce his ruin. He must have the labouring MAN and the labouring BOY; but, alas! he cannot have these, without the man’s wife and the boy’s mother, and little sisters and brothers. Even Nature herself says, that he shall have the wife and little children, or that he shall not have the man and the boy. But the Lords of the Loom, the crabbed-voiced, hard-favoured, hard-hearted, puffed-up, insolent and bloody wretches of the North have, assisted by a blind and greedy Government, taken all the employment away from the agricultural women and children. This manufacture of straw [Cobbett was describing the ease with which fine straw hats could be produced for the local home market] will form one little article of employment for these persons. It sets at defiance all the hatching and scheming of the tyrannical wretches who cause the poor little creatures to die in their factories, heated to eighty-four degrees. There will need no inventions of Watt; none of your horse powers, nor water powers; no murdering of one set of wretches in the coal mines, to bring up the means of murdering another sort of wretches in the factories, by the heat produced from these coals; none of these are wanted to carry on this manufacture. It wants no combination laws [by which trade unions were made illegal so that workers were rendered powerless to negotiate their terms of paid employment]; none of the inventions of the hard-hearted wretches of the North.” (Cottage Economy p181)

Cobbett’s basic argument holds true to the present day. Instead of going out to a place of paid employment, it could ‘pay’ to make a cost/benefit, time and motion analysis of the real value to each household of seeking paid employment in a place of work. Going out to a place of paid employment engenders costs, in terms of time, money and the real resources of the earth. Weighed, measured and balanced up, much of that expenditure could prove, on reflection, to be a waste of time, money and resources.

Going to work (i.e., into paid employment outside the household) normally involves travel and other costs. Be it car or public transport, that means money is spent by the worker, fuel and means of transport have to be produced by other workers, and the whole costs in terms of environmental wastes. Similarly, suitable clothing has to be bought, housing, leisure, sports, holidays and so on paid for, produced and consumed. The task is to evaluate the total ‘satisfaction’ gained within an individual household, when the total ‘disutility’ (dissatisfaction, waste) is taken into account.

Moreover - and this comes out elsewhere in Cottage Economy – children given responsible tasks to perform in a well-managed home derive lifelong advantage from acquiring practical skills, with their inherent satisfactions. Such benefits are denied the inmate of the formal school classroom. Cobbett himself was living proof of the argument that book-learning can come later, to great advantage.

However, for parents of today, the big question is how to put a roof over the head of their family. And that means going to work to earn the money to provide the necessities of life so that their children can go to school in their turn to learn how to go to work … etc, etc, etc.

See Home Economics Study Guide, by Frances Hutchinson (forthcoming).

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