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Who decides what within the family?

Who decides what within the family?

What do families do with their time and budget? Three economists developed a model to explain and predict those choices.

5 minutes
12 November 2020

Who decides whether a family goes skiing? Whether money goes to expensive hobbies for the parents or clothes for the children? What about the division of household tasks? Economists Laurens Cherchye, Frederic Vermeulen and Bram De Rock have been studying how families deal with the time and resources at their disposal for over fifteen years. ‘Take two almost completely identical families with, for example, two primary school children: you’ll still see differences in consumer behaviour and time use. We’ve developed models to analyse and explain this variation. Our models mainly provide insight into how larger decisions are made: how many hours do the partners work outside the home, how much time or resources are spent on the children? So it's not about who decides whether there’s pizza or chips on the menu tonight.’

The three economists started working together in 2004 to solve a theoretical mathematical problem. Since then, their research has evolved further and further. Initially, the focus was merely on describing how time and resources are distributed within families, and how that distribution depends on the negotiating position of partners within families. Increasingly, however, they’re trying to provide an explanation for the position someone takes when negotiating. For example, is it the case that the person who earns the most has the most say in decisions involving time and expenditures? And what is a possible underlying mechanism?

With our models, we can predict to a certain extent who is more likely to get divorced.

Recently, the three economists studied how, in Malawi, the bargaining position of partners can be explained by their position on the marriage market. ‘We’ve developed models that relate a partner's economic attractiveness to other potential partners; in other words, the quality of his or her exit options from the current marriage, and the extent to which he or she can make decisions within the family. These models seem well founded to describe and explain the real situation in Malawi. We see that partners are more likely to divorce in situations where there’s no correlation between the negotiating position within the family and their potential opportunities in the marriage market. As a result our models can predict – to a certain extent – who is more likely to get divorced. Moreover, you can try to influence the negotiating position of women in the family through policy, for example, by increasing women’s level of education or by means of women-friendly divorce legislation.’

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In doing so, you can also encourage more investment in children. After all, it is generally assumed that mothers are willing to do more for their children than fathers, which is why in many countries child benefits are paid directly into the mother's account. ‘In families where the mother has the most say, you can expect more resources to go to the children. In some developing countries, where women have virtually no control over anything, you have to take this into account if you want to improve the living conditions of children. You have to focus primarily on improving the negotiating position of their mothers.’

The researchers are also studying how couples and families form. Especially in a country like Malawi, where there is a lot of poverty, economic motives play an important role in the choice of partner. But in our own society, too, people consciously or unconsciously make economic decisions, say the researchers. ‘You see, for example, that the highly educated mainly enter into relationships with other highly educated people.’ Of course, other issues also play a role. ‘In our most recent research, we also take into account elements such as match quality: how well people fit together, regardless of the material aspect.’

Highly educated parents work more hours outside the home than low-educated parents and spend three more hours a week with their children

Gap growing wider

Research like this can be very relevant to society, say the three economists. For example, they’re trying to understand why some parents invest more time in their children than others. ‘It will come as no surprise that highly educated parents work many more hours outside the home than less educated parents. What is surprising is that they nevertheless spend three more hours a week with their children. There is ample scientific evidence that spending more time with children has a positive impact, including on their later chances on the labour market. Understanding why there are differences between families in this area can be useful when considering possible policy measures. This is all the more important because, as we’ve said, relationships are increasingly being formed between the high-skilled on the one hand and the low-skilled on the other. As a result, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children is widening.’

Such findings could, for example, be an argument for lowering the age at which children have to go to school. In that way the government can correct for the fact that certain families invest less time in their children. It would also be a way to reduce the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children at an early stage. Ultimately, this is much cheaper for society because it would help to avoid additional expenditure in the long term, given that underprivileged children run a greater risk of unemployment and health problems later in life.

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Increasingly, the researchers are also examining concrete issues. ‘Using our models, you can predict the effect of certain policy measures on how time or resources are spent within families, and therefore on the well-being of the children in those families. For example, you could use them to calculate how much alimony should be allocated in the event of a divorce. Or what the impact of legislation might be on gender equality. We have the sense that the government is interested in using our models to investigate concrete policy issues, especially after our research was awarded the Francqui Prize last year.’

That the Francqui Prize went to three researchers at the same time was a first. ‘In our field, people sometimes still look a bit askance at the idea of working together on very intensive research over a long period of time. However, we’re convinced that our results are the result of our close collaboration.’