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Time poverty is making Indian women lose more money than ever

In ‘Labouring women’, economist Jayati Ghosh writes about what Indian policymakers are getting wrong in their measure of poverty.

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Among the various aspects of deprivation related to poverty and inequality, one aspect which has seldom attracted the attention of scholars and policy-makers equally is that of time poverty. Ignoring this important dimension actually results from a related and possibly more substantive deficiency: the inadequate conception of what constitutes work that underlies much of our empirical data collection and our policies and programmes. This in turn has resulted in many adverse implications in terms of gender differences in recognised and unrecognised work. It is now being felt that this deficiency is generating misconceived policies which, instead of improving the wellbeing of workers, are actually worsening them.

So what do we mean by ‘time poverty’? At its most banal level, it is understood as the shortage of time available to devote to purely personal requirements, including leisure and relational activities. There is a perception that time poverty, or the sense of not having enough hours in the day or week to perform all the activities one is required to perform or desires to undertake, is something common among middle-class professionals or those involved in high-stress managerial activities. Indeed the expressions ‘money rich, time poor’ or even ‘affluenza’ have increasingly been used in developed countries over the past decade to describe those with relatively high disposable incomes from well-paid jobs, who nonetheless lack time for leisure because of the time pressure of such jobs. Such problems are usually particularly acute for professional women, who face difficulties in achieving what is euphemistically called the ‘work–life balance’ since they continue to hold responsibilities in their households in addition to their paid employment. 

But this essay argues that such time poverty among the better off accounts for very little of the total, and that genuine time poverty is more than a qualitative loss resulting from individual choices. Rather, most people who are time-poor are also income-poor and suffer from other (often multiple) deprivations. Further, the presence of time poverty adds to overall deprivation in a significant way that is rarely captured even in newer multidimensional measures of poverty.

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The basic argument made here is that the poorer the people, the less are the chances to afford buying various goods and services from the market, and if these are not provided by public policy, then they can only consume them if they produce these goods and services themselves. This means that typically, in addition to having to work often long hours for relatively low wages, or paltry remuneration for self-employment, they must also engage in unpaid labour to meet the essential consumption needs of themselves and their family members. So the incidence of unpaid labour increases sharply as the income of a household falls. This obviously means greater time deprivation in terms of less leisure time available.

But there is a further concern. Suppose that the conditions of work available to the members of a poor family are such that they are forced to spend long hours working for very low pay. They are still required to perform many unpaid activities—say, purchasing and processing food, cleaning the home to maintain a minimally sanitary environment, fetching water and/or fuel as well as other such essentials for daily use, caring for the young, the old and the sick members of the family, and so on. But imagine that the working hours (and possibly the hours of transport required from home to workplace) are such that they are simply not able to perform all of these activities, or at least do not have the time to perform them to a minimum satisfactory standard. Then time poverty translates into more than just loss of leisure—it adds to the material deprivation of that family because of the loss of the consumption that would have been enabled by the unpaid labour that there simply is no time for.

As it happens, standard poverty measures, which typically refer to money income as the relevant variable, effectively assume that all households have enough time to perform the (usually unpaid) activities required and do not take into account the variations in requirements of unpaid work that may well be driven by the money income available. This is why it has been argued (for example, by Vickery 1977) that if the threshold for determining the minimum non-poor consumption implicitly requires both money income and unpaid work products, then the official poverty standards do not correctly measure household needs. Since poorer households are less likely to be able to purchase goods and services to substitute for unpaid labour at home, they are therefore much more likely to have household members who have time deficits—in other words, who experience time poverty.

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For many developing countries, including India, the problems are even starker: there are many unpaid work activities that simply cannot be outsourced because market substitutes or State provision simply do not exist in adequate measure (Antonopoulos and Memis 2010). Consider, for example, the fact that nearly 80 per cent of households in rural India still rely on collected firewood as the primary source of their energy needs for cooking, etc. Some households may simply be too poor to access processed fuel even when it is available—but in many parts of the country, this is not even available in adequate measure and therefore cannot be purchased. It is hard to envision how much of the time-consuming activity of walking long distances to collect firewood to meet household needs can be outsourced within the village. 

It is important to note that the existence of such unpaid work does more than add to the time poverty of those who must perform it. It also plays several important macroeconomic roles: it effectively subsidises the marketised part of the economy, which we tend to valorise through our obsession with measures of gross domestic product (GDP); and it subsidises State provisioning of goods and (especially) services, which are supposed to meet the social and economic rights of every citizen but end up getting delivered through such unpaid activities because of inadequate public delivery.

The implications of time poverty for women, in particular, are immense, because they are associated with the ‘double burden’ of paid and unpaid work (Elson 1995) and extend into changing the nature of poverty and its implications. Thus, the unemployment–poverty link which has been noted for men in developing countries is not so direct and evident for women: many women are fully employed and still remain poor in absolute terms, and adding to their workload will not necessarily improve their material conditions. Many women in comparatively better-off households may well be time-poor because of the multiple demands imposed on them to meet the requirements of unpaid domestic activities.

This is corroborated by TUSs (time-use surveys) that link the time spent in various activities with the income level of the household. Let us consider the evidence from India. A TUS conducted by the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) in 1998–99 (unfortunately still the most recent such survey, although a new one is now being planned) covered 18,628 households and 77,593 people in six major states in India: Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Odisha and Meghalaya. Some of the results (as analysed by Hirway 2010) are not surprising. For example, poorer households show greater time spent on unpaid work [in non-SNA (System of National Accounts) or not economically recognised activities] in a week, and women in general show much greater time spent on this than men. Women in ultra- poor households rank at the bottom in terms of the burden of total work, making them very clearly time-deficit and therefore doubly poor. But there are also some more surprising results. The survey found that women in rich households work much harder than ultra-poor men in terms of the time put into work. (This partly reflects the lack of paid work for poor men as well as the greater burden of unpaid work on women in their households.) The gender differences in time deficits indicated by the survey are quite stark: ultra-poor women have 10 fewer hours of personal time per week than ultra-poor men; and even in non-poor households, women have five-and a-half hours less of personal time per week than men.

So what does all this tell us about economic policies and the resultant material processes? First, it is evident that even for women’s economic empowerment, the pressing policy concern is not that of simply increasing the volume of explicit female employment, since simply adding on recognised ‘jobs’ may, in fact, lead to a double burden upon women whose household obligations still have to be fulfilled.

Instead, concern has to be focused upon the quality, the recognition and the remuneration of women’s work, as well as the conditions facilitating it, such as alternative arrangements for household work and childcare. All of these are critically affected by broader economic policies as well as by government interventions at micro and meso levels. And these together determine whether or not increased labour market activity by women is associated with genuine improvements in their economic circumstances.

Once we recognise the significance of unpaid work and its implications for poverty in its different dimensions and the way in which its logic is applied to economic policies, we can very well sum up that the contemporary mainstream economic thinking is clearly inadequate and even misleading in understanding the real economic reality in many ways.

This excerpt from Labouring Women: Issues and Challenges in Contemporary India has been published with special permission from Orient BlackSwan.

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