What Is “Time Poverty” and Why Should You Care?

Michael Stephens | June 5, 2013

This is how we came up with the official poverty line for the United States, back in the early 1960s:  essentially, we put together a very basic diet, figured out the monetary value, and multiplied by three.  If a family has less income than that number, adjusted for inflation, they’re poor.

There are numerous problems with this measure, and the Census Bureau has since come up with an alternative, the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which they started reporting in 2011.  But there’s one very important item that’s left out of both the official and supplemental poverty measures:  time.  What does time have to do with poverty, you might ask?  The extent to which you find yourself tempted to ask that question is partly a reflection of how much we still take unpaid work and its products for granted in economic analysis, and more generally.

Many of the products of household labor, like edible meals and basic healthcare and sanitation, are among those things absolutely essential to attaining a bare bones standard of wellbeing.  Providing these products and services in adequate amounts takes time.  If we don’t have the time to do this work ourselves, it’s often possible to buy substitutes on the market (housekeeping, day care, and so on), but either the time for unpaid work or the money to purchase substitutes needs to be accounted for.  The outputs of unpaid household work can’t simply be taken for granted when we’re trying to measure people’s ability to secure the basics.  Yet all around the world, we do just that when we put together our official poverty statistics.

A research team led by Ajit Zacharias, Rania Antonopoulos, and Thomas Masterson has been examining how the depth and breadth of poverty change when we take the demands of unpaid work seriously — how this changes who is counted as poor, and how poor they are considered to be.  Their alternative measure is called “LIMTIP,” the Levy Institute Measure of Time and Income Poverty.  In a recent interview, Rania Antonopoulos explained why LIMTIP is a crucial tool for figuring out how widely our formal and informal economies are delivering a meaningful chance at a decent life:

I think though that the most important issue is public recognition of the fact that time deficits exist, that they impose hardships on families and that they can be poverty-inducing; that time deficits are not exclusively a woman’s issue and it is not only about the ‘double day’, due to the hardship that women face when they work for pay while having to take care of their families as well. It is mostly about households that seem they are making ends meet but in reality they are not able to meet fundamental basic needs in their households. It is also about underestimating the range and the depth of unmet needs of already vulnerable populations, below or around poverty level incomes. At the individual level, women suffer from time deficits, but men are affected badly as well. Above all, children are more vulnerable than we think and they suffer, simply because the adults they live with are time poor.

She also elaborated on an experiment designed to measure the extent to which expanding full-time employment would help reduce poverty (as measured by LIMTIP):

As part of our research we conducted an experiment, we simulated a ‘what if’ scenario according to which all adults without a full time job suddenly received one and their compensation was comparable to the market wages individuals with similar characteristics receive. As expected, what we found is that the majority of new entrants were women. We anticipated this finding simply because Labour Force Participation (LFP) was lower for women than for men. And while, in this full employment simulation scenario, income poverty was reduced substantially, for many women (especially for those with children under 18 years old) the new income earned was not sufficient to replace their time deficits. For poverty reduction, early childhood development and other care services are instrumental. But, not only: the other important conclusion we can draw from this experiment/simulation is that wages for some types of occupations are terribly low – so low, that the time deficits incurred when another adult member enters the labor force cannot be bought out via, for example, hiring a domestic worker.

You can read the full interview here.  Reports from the LIMTIP project can be downloaded here.


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