According To Economics, There Should (In Theory) Only Be One Bread Winner In The Family

by Paul Hudson

What I’m about to touch on will surely frustrate quite a few people. I’m certain that most won’t want to hear this, and that some will even go as far as to troll me passionately for weeks to come.

But I’m going to write it anyway. Regardless of what opinions you may hold in regards to the ideal structuring of family and family life as a whole, from a strategic standpoint only one of the parents should be the breadwinner in the family.

No, it doesn’t need to necessarily be the man in the partnership, but more often than not it ought to be. I’m not being sexist; I’m simply being rational. Here’s why:

According to the theory of Comparative Advantage, parties should focus on producing a good or service at a lower marginal or opportunity cost over another.

Usually the Comparative Advantage theory is applied to economics – mainly when speaking of countries and the goods or services they produce. The general idea is that in a global free trade market, countries should focus on producing whatever it is that they can most efficiently produce.

If country A can produce computer chips more efficiently than country B, and country B can produce monitors more efficiently than country A, then the two countries should focus on producing each respective product and then trade.

If all goes according to plan, the total goods produced will have been produced as efficiently as possible, allowing for an increase in production rate and/or lowering of marginal cost.

While many will argue that the theory of Comparative Advantage is too simple to hold for such complex systems as global economics, they do hold true on a smaller scale – such as within the system that is a family.

In a family, each member has a role to play. Children do little more than help out when needed and (hopefully) bring happiness to their parents, as well as to each other.

The parents, on the other hand, are what allow the family to… run.

If we look at a family as a system, we have to agree that the parents are what allow a family to continue to function. They make money. They take care of the children. They take care of the home. They purchase goods for the family, as well as feed and clothe the members of the family. Without parents, there is no family.

The parents play a vital role because they make sure that the family stays both healthy and happy.

For this to happen – minimally – the parents have to do only two things: make money and raise the children.

Now, the question is: Who is to do which?

Should both parents play an equal role in making money and raising the children? Or does it make more sense for one parent to focus on one thing while the other focuses on what remains?

Most families can’t afford not to have working parents. Some can’t afford not to have two working parents. Let’s touch on those that don’t fall under either of these two categories.

Assuming only one parent needs to "bring home the bread," should one be a "stay-at-home parent"?

Assuming that the best way for children to be raised is by (either of) their parents, then yes, both parents shouldn’t be spending most of their time working. While it is important that both parents spend a significant amount of time with their children, especially at a young age, most families can’t afford to split their time evenly.

For this reason, in those families where both parents have careers, the children are the ones who suffer most.

Regardless of each parent’s dreams and aspirations, although important and surely conducive to the individual’s happiness, becoming a parent (supposedly) means you need to put the happiness and wellbeing of the children before your own (something that can also be argued against).

If a family is a system that you elected to be a part of, a system that takes precedence over your own wants and desires, then you have to do what is best for the family. According to the theory of Comparative Advantage, that may very well mean that you should give up on your career and become a stay-at-home parent.

The psychological complexities are too numerous to touch on in a short article, but if it is more efficient for one parent to work and the other to take care of the children, then that is exactly what should happen.

In writing this, I am assuming that each parent wants nothing more than what is best for the family as a whole. This, again, is very complicated – each individual has an ego and will always want to attend to his or her personal needs.

Not attending to these personal needs can likewise have dire effects on family life. For this reason, it is very important to weigh all effects and collateral damage that will result from any decision that is made.

More likely than not, you will come to the conclusion that it makes more sense if one parent, rather than both, be the breadwinner in the family.

To accept this is to accept your family as being more important than you as an individual. As I am not a parent myself, I cannot speak from experience other than from the experience I had with my parents.

It does seem very possible that parents can, and often do, put their family’s needs above their own. If it’s more efficient for one parent to take care of the kids and the other to make money, then that is exactly what should happen. Of course, people are people and we all want what we want.

We want to have our cake and eat it. We want a family and we want our careers. Unfortunately, as things currently stand that usually isn’t a possibility.

More often than not, we will have to make this difficult decision. All I hope is that when you do, you look at is as logically and selflessly as possible.

Should the wife be the one to stay at home and take care of the kids while the husband goes to work? Not necessarily, but more often than not, yes.

Why? Because men usually make more money – even when the woman holds the exact same position. Men are also more likely to be promoted.

Is this fair? No. It’s disgusting.

But it’s also the reality that we live in. If the theory of Comparative Advantage holds true for family life, as it often does in economics, then each parent should focus on doing what he or she is most successful at doing.

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