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The Common Purse: Income Sharing in New Zealand Families

by Robyn Fleming

Maureen Baker
Professor of Sociology
University of Auckland

Income has not always been equally accessible to all family members, especially to wives, according to previous research in Britain and elsewhere. Robin Fleming's informative and readable study was prompted by such research, investigating whether family income can be used as an accurate measure of individual family members' access to the economic resources in New Zealand households.

As "family" is defined differently depending on cultural background, the research design investigated Pākehā, Pacific Island and Māori families separately (with the assistance of Julia Taiapa, Anna Pasikale and Susan Kell Easting). The project involved 59 Pākehā couples, 20 Māori families, and 32 Pacific Island households, whose adult members were interviewed in 1992 and 1993 (why did it take so long to publish the book?). The interviews were guided by a set of open-ended questions that encouraged the participants "to tell their own stories in their own ways". This methodology revealed cultural, social class and gender differences in who earned the money in the family, who made major decisions about spending, and how resources were shared.

Fleming found that ways of thinking about family vary by ethnicity and influence family relations. For many Māori people, the whanau was an important part of their family life, tribal structure, and way of preserving and sustaining their way of life. For Pacific Island people in New Zealand, the extended family was the predominant family unit and helped to sustain values and identities in a new country. In contrast most Pākehā people in the study assumed that "family" referred to the couple and their children living together in a household,

Despite women's entrance into the labour force, the Pākehā participants typically saw the husband's earnings as the family's main support. Furthermore, the "male breadwinner" family form is also institutionalised in New Zealand social policies and laws. Fleming found that patterns of family money management were strongly influenced by ethnicity and social class, but she also notes that social class and differential rates of labour force participation interact with culture. Consequently, the ethnic and cultural influences on money management are difficult to separate from the effects of social class.

Fleming examined whether or not all the people in a household believe that all the money earned is available for household use. Considerable differences in priorities and obligations were apparent by culture, and Fleming felt it was necessary to differentiate between household money and family money. For the Pākehā couples, family money and household money were essentially the same, and money tended to flow from males to females and down the generations from parents to children. Paying the bills for the household was given priority over other expenses. For Māori couples, the boundaries of the family economy could stretch to include other kin and at times the entire whanau. For the Pacific Island couples, extended family demands often took precedent over household bills and individual needs, and focusing on household priorities was seen as overly individualistic and selfish.

The cultural variations in conceptualising "family" mean that different couples bring varying expectations to the organisation of household money. Systems based on the gendered division of responsibilities (especially the man's role as breadwinner) were more typical for Pākehā families, although Fleming cautions that the sample was not large enough to generalise. Previous research from other countries as well as the present study have concluded that women tend to be given the unenviable task of making ends meet on a small income, but when the income is high enough for a surplus, men are more likely to control the family money. Fleming notes that practical, psychological, socioeconomic, and ethnic influences all contribute to the way New Zealand couples allocate their money. Generally speaking, Pākehā families had the highest average incomes, and both men and women in these families held the expectation that the man would be the main income earner. They expressed the belief that earning most of the money should give men greater control than women over spending decisions. In Māori and Pacific Island families this male-breadwinner model was less prevalent, but Fleming notes that male authority may be expressed through other means than money. Although this latter point needs further research, traditional gender roles continue to underlie the financial arrangements of the majority of couples in this study.

Fleming found that having children in New Zealand tends to reduce family income but particularly the mother's access to money. More could have been made of this finding, as my comparative research (Baker and Tippin forthcoming) indicates that mothers in New Zealand are more likely than mothers in most other OECD countries to care for their young children at home. In particular, full-time employment for mothers is difficult here, with relatively little government support in terms of paid maternity benefits or tax concessions and subsidies for childcare. Consequently, the full-time labour force participation rates of New Zealand mothers are much lower than in the United States, Canada, Sweden or Denmark.

In all three studies that make up this book, family celebrations reaffirmed kinship ties and the existence of family itself. For both the Māori and Pacific Island participants, reciprocity involved an obligation to participate and to contribute, and ensured the ongoing functioning of the whanau or extended family group. They noted that gifts of money are acceptable. For the Pākehā, reciprocity was more about maintaining relationships between individuals or the parent-child unit. Money gifts, which are acceptable only between close kin, tended to flow down through the generations and individual ownership was emphasised.

How much money parents gave to their children depended on family income but also on ideas about childraising. Māori and Pacific Island respondents noted that children growing up as part of a whanau or extended family are taught to use their money to support the continuity of the larger family group as well as for their own purposes. On the other hand, Pākehā parents said that they trained their children towards a financially independent adulthood and used money as a reward for good behaviour or the performance of tasks, as a reflection of approval, and as a source of self-respect.

The Pākehā households were typically self-sufficient economic units but the boundaries of the other households were more permeable to money and their economies were part of a wider family group. Both the Māori and Pacific Island studies challenged the assumption that all a married couple's income would be at the disposal of the couple and their household. The needs of the Māori whanau or the Pacific Island extended family can take priority over the household in certain circumstances, which is part of the price of maintaining cultural identity. Culturally specific expenses are additional to personal living costs, yet both Māori and Pacific Island families typically earn less than the Pākehā majority.

This research confirms that a couple's combined income is an unreliable indicator of the money available to New Zealand women and their children. Access to money is influenced by gender, socioeconomic circumstances, and cultural variations in family structure. Gender differences were most noticeable in Pākehā families, where the man's earnings were seen as the main family income and the male breadwinner ideal was given precedence over gender equality. In fact, the more money a Pākehā man earned, the more he was able to exert control over how it was spent. In some families, women had restricted access to money even when the overall family income is high, yet women tended to spend these limited resources on their families before themselves.

Information about how money was involved in the breakdown of previous relationships was drawn from a small retrospective study of ten Pākehā women; Although most of these women shared the traditional belief that it is the man's task to provide most of the family income and to share his income with his partner and children, not all their first marriages involved this kind of sharing. Women whose first unhappy marriages involved money problems and distinct gender roles tended to insist on independent financial arrangements or at least pooling or shared control of money in their subsequent relationships. When women lived in blended families, their money arrangements were less likely to be based on traditional gender roles. This is consistent with other research indicating that the divorce experience often radicalises women in terms of gender roles (Smith et al. 1991).

Fleming argues that the symbolic importance of money is often overlooked by economic analysts, yet money can symbolise many things, such as access to power or freedom. In a money-based economy, people who are not in a position to earn a living (such as women with small children) are not only financially dependent but also tend to feel powerless and restricted in their options. In Māori and Pacific Island families, the control of money did not reflect gender relations as directly as it did in Pākehā families; rather, access to money often symbolised the ability to participate in family obligations and important cultural activities.

Several policy implications arise from this research. Access to government assistance and social services in New Zealand is often based on household family income, yet women and children do not always receive a fair share of a male breadwinner's money. This suggests that some women and children in families considered to be "well off" may be being denied services that they in fact need. This could include income support or access to subsidies for services such as health care, available only to those with low family incomes. One solution to this problem is to base entitlement to social benefits on individual income rather than on family income. Unemployment benefits in Canada, for example, are based on individual income, which means that unemployed women who were previously in the workforce can receive benefits regardless of their partners' income. Alternatively, social services such as access to child care or medical care can be universally available to everyone who needs it, as in Sweden.

The second policy implication of The Common Purse is that definitions of "family" vary by culture but governments such as New Zealand base entitlement for income support and subsidised social services on the nuclear family. Furthermore, the government assumes that any money earned by a family member will be spent within the nuclear family. Fleming notes that some Māori and Pacific Island couples are obliged to contribute to their extended families and may be expected to give these obligations priority over regular household expenses. Furthermore, Māori and Pacific Islands families tend to have lower earned incomes. The implications of income sharing among extended families in Māori and Pacific Island cultures are complex and clearly need to be further researched, as the sample size of these families was quite small in Fleming's study. While she argues that some income is unavailable to meet household needs, she also needs to acknowledge that resources flow into the household from other members of the extended family. In addition, the higher degree of communal sharing, such as shared meals, may mean that households in extended family cultures have some lower costs than households based on nuclear families. Nevertheless, the fact that only one family structure forms the basis of eligibility in New Zealand should be a policy concern, as it is in other multicultural nations such as Canada and the United States. In those nations, attempts are being made to develop social services that are more Culturally relevant for First Nations people as well as for immigrants from different Cultures.

This study reinforces the findings of researchers such as Jan Pahl (1989) in the United Kingdom who emphasised the gendered nature of resource allocation in many nuclear families. Although the text was at times repetitious, Fleming and her associates did a fine job of integrating their New Zealand findings into the international feminist and family studies literature. Yet the main contribution of The Common Purse is the addition of the dimension of ethnicity or Culture! which complicates but enriches the discussion of family resource allocation. Fleming's study provides fresh insights and much-needed empirical research into family life in this country.


Baker, Maureen and David Tippin (forthcoming) Poverty, Social Assistance and the Employability of Mothers: Restructuring Welfare States, University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Pahl, Jan (1989) Money and Marriage, Macmillan, London.

Smith, Rebecca M. et al. (1991) "Self-Other Orientation and Sex-Role Orientation of Men and Women who Remarry" in Sandra S. Volgy (ed.) Women and Divorce. Men and Divorce, Haworth Press, New York, pp.3-32.

Cover photo of Social Policy Journal


Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 11

The Common Purse: Income Sharing In New Zealand Families by Robyn Fleming

Dec 1998

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