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5. Intra-household allocation of resources: perspectives from psychology

Psychology and Human Development Department, California Polytechnic State University,
San Luis Obispo, California, USA


This paper evaluates the contributions of the field of psychology to understanding intrahousehold resource allocation patterns and their potential alteration. A conceptual framework is then presented which specifies three kinds of resources, and five dimensions of the social context that should be taken into account in analysing the possible changes in intra-household allocation which may result from development interventions. Finally, a longitudinal component for predicting long-term project effects is included. Several specific implications can be drawn from the psychological constructs:

  1. Because cultural patterns assign mothers the primary responsibility for infant care giving, resources in their hands may tend to be used more directly for the welfare of children than resources in the hands of fathers.
  2. Individuals with higher self-esteem or aspirations may be more responsive to interventions.
  3. Those with and without power may use different strategies in decision-making, which should be surveyed systematically to determine all decision-making. Power relationships within a household may be difficult to change, in that those with and without power may tend to feel that their positions are justified.
  4. A number of different allocation strategies may be represented in household allocation patterns. These may not be the same as those of the funding agency. For instance, children most in need may not receive scarce resources in some countries, despite our United States bias to support all children according to need.
  5. Changes over a five-year period may be quite different from those immediately following project initiation. Initial responses may be quite different from those which evolve as households adapt to a new situation.
  6. Characteristics of the target individual, as well as those of the family, will have a significant effect on project outcomes for the individual.

There are two compelling reasons to pursue analysis of intra-household processes, in spite of the additional effort required. These are: (1) to maximize the effectiveness of the project in the short-term and (2) to avoid the unexpected consequences of long-term changes brought about by development projects. As new resources enter a system, the family will change over time. These adaptations may well determine the success of the intervention.


Designing development programmes to improve the life circumstances of the rural poor is far more difficult than previously believed. Increasing the disposable income of a family or providing food aid has not necessarily resulted in better-fed, healthier children (Kennedy, 1983). Agricultural development projects have not always improved children's nutritional status either (Dewey, 1981). Moreover, development projects have caused unexpected changes in household resource allocation which are at cross-purposes to the anticipated project outcome.

This paper presents contributions from psychology to a multidisciplinary conceptual framework for examining changes that might occur within a household as a result of development interventions. Since the framework focuses on the micro-level exchanges that take place within a household' or family, it is particularly useful for identifying household-level issues that are the key to effective planning and to the prediction of longterm consequences of development projects. This framework includes variables that are typically of interest to economists, anthropologists, psychologists, and other social scientists.

What unique role can psychologists play in understanding development policy ? Although psychologists have done relatively little work specifically in the area of international development, much of their research has concentrated on issues of cultural differences in behaviour patterns. Their perspective, therefore, differs from those of anthropologists and economists presented by Messer and Rosenzweig in two previous chapters. Traditional cultural anthropologists define culture as a "totality of learned meanings maintained by a human population" (Rohner, 1984). Psychologists are more interested in how individual beliefs, attitudes, and learned meanings vary within a particular culture (Segall, 1984), and their approach is more similar to that of many present-day anthropologists.

Psychological concepts can help refine economic models of household processes as well. For example, Berry (1984) argues that decision-making analysis, which assumes that farmers make rational choices among discrete options, "offers an extremely restricted framework for analysing the complexities of intra- and inter-household processes, and their implications for macro performance" (Berry, 1984, p. 4). Moreover, these models "do not explain how options are determined and how they change over time" (Berry, 1984, p. 6). Psychologists investigate these very complexities as well as the rules for exchange and decision-making in close relationships (cf. Foa and Foa, 1980). Recent work by Kahneman, Slovic, and Tversky (1982) has demonstrated that many decisions made under conditions of uncertainty often are not rationally based. In daily functioning, people ignore statistical probabilities when deciding the likelihood of an outcome. For instance, a teenager's birth-control strategy might be "it could never happen to me."

Who within the family will benefit from a development project is a central question for project planners. A project that increases a family's income may improve the nutritional status of the father but leave that of the children unaffected. A low birth-weight baby may continue to be neglected even after more food is supplied to the household while the nutritional status of an older child improves. A maternal-child health project may be directed toward the youngest child in the family, but the benefit may be felt by the older siblings. Are these failures or successes of the development process? The target group of the project is often defined by the development agency, while cultural and familial patterns may redirect benefits toward a different group. An understanding of intra-household allocation rules will help planners target projects more effectively. This paper first discusses psychological factors that affect intra-household relationships and thus the outcomes of development projects. It then examines allocation strategies from a psychological perspective. It concludes with the presentation of a framework for examining the longitudinal effects of an intervention on intra-household allocation processes.


Two issues in the intra-household allocation of resources can be better understood through the application of psychological knowledge: (1) factors influencing power and decision-making within the household, including the ways in which the family role of the income-earner affects how money and other resources are used; and (2) the effects on intra-household allocation patterns of parental beliefs or rules for distributing resources.

Power and Decision-making within the Household

The significance of power and decision-making roles within the household for predicting outcomes of development programmes is based on three hypotheses:

  1. Households do not pool income; rather, expenditures are determined by bargaining and by each person's role within the household.
  2. Mothers, for a variety of cultural and biological reasons, are more likely to allocate money to the immediate food and health needs of children than are fathers.
  3. Women who are income-earners may have more power in decision-making than women who are not income-earners. They may also have more self-confidence and be more assertive, under some working conditions.

Income Pooling

The economic model of household decision-making which suggests that all family members act as a unit to maximize their mutual good (Becker, 1981) is not a particularly accurate model for decision-making in many low-income households. Rather, Dwyer (1983) and Bruce and Dwyer (1988) summarize a number of investigations indicating that male and female household members do not pool their incomes, or pool them only incompletely (cf. Jones, 1983; Baer, 1984; Fapohunda, 1988; Roldan, 1988; Jelín, this volume) Under conditions of greater poverty, pooling is even less common. In fact, a spouse is often kept ignorant of the amount the other earns. In a recent survey of 300 mothers in a Guatemalan town, 41 per cent of the mothers reported that their husbands did not know how much they earned (Engle, in preparation, 1988). Thus, if spending patterns differ between spouses, who earns or loses the income may be crucial to predicting and evaluating the effects of household income changes on children's welfare.

Family Expenditure Patterns and the Attachment Theory

In a village in rural Guatemala, women wove mats in order to earn a very small amount of money each day, which they immediately used to puchase milk for their children (Mejia Piveral, 1972). A number of studies have suggested that mothers' income is positively related to children's mortality (Engle, 1983) and nutritional status (Kumar, 1978; Engle and Pederson, 1989).

The hypothesis that mothers are more likely than are fathers to spend income for the immediate food and health needs of their children has been suggested in recent position papers (cf. USAID, 1982; Rogers and Youssef, 1988). It is sometimes referred to as the "good mother, bad father" theory, which is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the concept. Differential spending patterns could depend on differences in attachment, in mothers' and fathers' prescribed roles in a particular society, or on differences in each parent's ability to perceive the needs of the child. Whatever the basis for these differential spending patterns (cultural, biological, or both), they will influence whether a project should be directed at income generation for women alone, for husbands and wives, or for other family members.

One hypothesis is that mothers are more likely to allocate resources to children than are fathers because they are more attached to their children. Attachments are defined as "specific, enduring relationships characterized by (and growing out of) the infants' use of proximity to adults as a means of assuring protection and care" (Lamb, 1982, p. 202). For most infants, in most cultures, these relationships are fully established by six or eight months of age, and are indicated by the infant's distress at the absence of the attachment figure. Parents also become attached to their infants with a similar bond, usually developed very soon after the birth of their baby (Konner, 1982). The parental attachment is solidified by the biological processes of nursing, the infant's smiling, eye-toeye contact, and laughter during the second and third months of life.

Infants appear to become attached to both their mothers and fathers during their first year, even though most fathers spend far less time with their children than do mothers (Lamb, 1982). In the second year, however, most infants turn more toward their mothers when distressed. Both mothers and fathers tend to respond similarly to infants' signals (Frodi et al., 1978), but consistent differences in the kinds and frequencies of these responses have been noted, suggesting that mothers tend to respond more often than fathers. In the United States, for example, Power and Parke (1983) reported that mothers' and fathers' behaviours toward their infants were similar in duration, but that mothers showed greater responsiveness to their infants' needs. Green and Gustafson (1983) reported differences in recognition of infants' cries at one month: 80 per cent of mothers but only 45 per cent of fathers could discriminate their infant's cry from those of other infants.

Fathers may assume that mothers bear the primary responsibility for nurturing. In one cross-cultural study in Nigeria, fathers of children hospitalized for severe proteinenergy malnutrition were asked to identify its causes. Over 35 per cent of the fathers felt that their children's malnutrition was primarily the mothers' responsibility (Ojofeitimi and Adelekan, 1984), although the episode was more likely to have been caused by poor sanitation and poverty, responsibilities shared by the family, than by lack of maternal attention.

Are these patterns of maternal responsibility for primary care-giving biologically determined or culturally prescribed? The two are difficult to separate. Konner (1982) observes that the mother initiates and sustains the mother-infant bond in the first months of the child's life. Later, the child's responsiveness reinforces the bond. He comments that, "although it is clear that she is aided in this by cultural training and social expectations, it is also possible that the hormonal changes of pregnancy, delivery, and lactation play some role in facilitating the maternal emotions" (Konner, 1982, p. 154). Lamb suggests that in non-traditional Swedish families, "these differences tin maternal and parental behaviour] may reflect the social roles assumed by males and females in traditional families" (Lamb, 1982, p. 199).

Would fathers become as attached to their young children if they spent as much time being primary care-givers as did mothers? Although this question has not yet been tested rigorously, several studies suggest that this occurs. Field (1978) studied small groups of primary care-giving fathers in the United States, and Russell (1982) studied 50 highly involved fathers in Australia. Both found that the fathers resembled primary care-giving mothers in their tendency to smile, vocalize and grimace in imitation of their infants' expressions. Lamb and colleagues (1982a), on the other hand, found that parental styles of interaction continue to differ by gender despite care-giving experience. They followed a group of Swedish families in whom the father planned to assume a primary care-giving role for at least one month during the first nine months of the child's life. At three months postpartum, fathers' and mothers' care-giving behaviours were quite similar. The few differences which did exist were more related to parent gender than to care-giving history. After eight months, when 17 of the fathers had taken paternity leave to be primary care-givers, the same pattern of parental care-giving emerged. "Parental gender appeared to be a more important influence on style of paternal behaviour than family type [traditional or father care-giving]" (Lamb et al., 1982a, p. 134). Despite these persistent gender differences, all studies show that primary care-taking fathers differ from traditional fathers in child care-taking.

Beail (1983), in a survey of research on fathering, noted that fathers are playing a growing role in child care in Westernized cultures, which provides some confirmation for the social origin of these attachment patterns. The changing economic climate worldwide is forcing parents' roles and responsibilities to shift. Employed mothers have already taken on new roles associated with paid work, but working fathers are just beginning to participate more directly in their infants' care and feeding. This growing trend of father participation has been documented as early as the first few months postpartum in a recent study of time use of working mothers in Boston (Schlossman, 1986; Schlossman and Zeitlin, eds., forthcoming). Three-month-old babies of dual-earner couples spent more time being cared for by their fathers when their mothers worked, irrespective of feeding method. Fathers shared in infant care (i.e. changing the baby's diapers and bringing it to the mother for breast-feeding), in infant feeding, or in taking over certain feedings altogether (i.e. night-time feedings when mixed- or bottle-feeding was used).

Mackey (1983) summarized cross-cultural patterns of what he calls the "man-child" bond. After observing adult-child interactions in public places, he concluded that: (1) parenting behaviours are inherent in both men and women, but the threshold for activating and maintaining them is much lower for women than men; (2) there are large differences among cultures, such as the extent of prescribed male roles, that affect men's care-giving behaviours; and (3) men's care-giving behaviours are more sensitive to the child's age than to the child's gender.

In sum, it appears that fathers have the capacity for responsiveness and care-giving equivalent to that of mothers, but that in most cultures the mother is the primary caregiver. This pattern is beginning to change in Westernized societies. As of now, however, the mother is more responsive to the child's needs, and thus may be more likely than the father to spend money to meet those needs. This expenditure will depend on her access to resources, either through decision-making power in the household or through control over her own source of funds. Who makes decisions about expenditures within the family, then, may have a considerable impact on the use of resources for meeting the immediate welfare needs of infants and young children.

Control over Income: Self-esteem, Power, and Decision-making

The third hypothesis is that women's power and status within the household are associated with their income-earning ability. Acharya and Bennett (1981), in their study of decision-making in eight villages in Nepal, found an association between women's statements of the extent of their decision-making in various spheres of influence (e.g. farming or domestic) and their economic activity. Lee and Peterson (1983) studied the relationships of wives' access to resources (defined as the percentage of the total household subsistence base attributable to the labour of women) to their conjugal power (defined as the extent to which wives exercised independent decision-making authority in the home) in 113 patriarchal cultures. The greater the wife's role in subsistence, the stronger was her conjugal power.

These results are significant for policy, particularly if the relationships are causal. If they are causal, one would predict that, as a mother begins to earn money, she will increase her role in decision-making within the family. Given the information on attachment and perception of needs, that money would be preferentially directed toward children's welfare. Making the step from association to causality is not easy. Dwyer suggests causality in her conclusion that for women "control over income - be it earned, inherited, or otherwise transferred - is an immediate gateway to power. By extension, lack of control over income remains a primary basis for women's variable but continuing subordination as well as the heightened vulnerability of many poor households" (Dwyer, 1983, p. 2).

Research on the bases of power, specifically those in close relationships, provides some insights about the psychological characteristics of power. First, power, defined as the capacity to alter the actions of others (Kelman, 1974), can be based on factors other than control over resources (i.e. earning and holding the income, also called coercive power). It may, for instance, rest on expertise (perceived as having special knowledge) or on reference (desire to identify with a certain person, admiration of a person as a role model) (French and Raven, 1959). For example, Guatemalan Indian women were found to have expertise power in their husbands' eyes (Raven, 1974). If so, then there is a variety of ways in which women can increase their power in the household.

A second factor affecting the operation of power within a household structure is the dynamic through which one individual achieves greater power. Evidence from the social psychological literature indicates that those people with more power tend to feel that they deserve that power, and feel that those with less power are perhaps less competent, less valuable, or have less information (Kipnis, 1976). This belief may even be shared by those with less power, who in fact appear to give away their power because of role expectations, greater sensitivity to another's wants, or for other reasons. Bruce and Dwyer (1988) suggest that the income-earner and other household members tend to value men's and women's contributions to a household differently. Women may earn a small income that means the difference between death and survival for her children, but it may be undervalued by both partners. Since the power system rests on a set of beliefs shared by all the family members (both those with and those without power), changing the power relationships within a household may be difficult and even disruptive. The exception is among individuals with higher self-esteem or higher expectations for themselves who appear more amenable to changes in power relationships. In the United States, the associations among self-esteem, assertiveness, and higher status are well known, but little is known about these relationships in developing countries.

The psychological literature suggests that the powerful use different strategies than do the powerless in close relationships. Falbo and Peplau (1980) define power as being held by the person whose preference wins out when there is disagreement. These researchers have identified strategies that couples use to control decisions in the United States. It seems that men, usually the more powerful partners, tended to use direct and interactive means of achieving power, such as stating their goals clearly and trying to persuade their partners. The women in these relationships, usually the partners with less power, more often used indirect means, such as behaving in a nonsupportive manner (e.g. "forgetting" to prepare a meal) or acting in a solitary way (e.g. just doing things on their own). Therefore, it is essential to examine indirect as well as direct means of gaining power.

Two key questions remain to be resolved. First, in which kinds of families will changes in power relationships be disruptive? In which will they be positive? Second, what kinds of activities cause increases in power for women within the household? The first question was addressed in Engle (1986b) and will be summarized here only briefly. From studies in the United States and Latin America, increasing women's income appears to be least disruptive of power relationships when the earned income is used towards a shared family goal (e.g. to buy some land).

Several studies pinpoint which income-generation schemes increase status and power in the family and which do not. Jain (1980) reports that among Indian women's organizations, those in which women entered into new relationships with strangers (e.g. bankers or lawyers) resulted in increased respect for the women. Under certain circumstances, financially successful women's projects also result in greater respect for women (Engle, 1986b). All too often, however, as Buvinic (1984) points out, these projects are financially unsuccessful; they take on a welfare function rather than income-generation. It is her perception that those projects that are financially successful tend to get taken over by men (Buvinic, 1984). Her recommendations include focusing on "production-oriented tasks that are innovative, non-stereotypic, and/or allow women to have access to modern productive resources for the first time" (Buvinic, 1984, p. 20). Improved income generation may provide women with the independence they need to escape from a negative relationship, one in which there is alcohol or spouse abuse (Keller, 1983; Engle, 1986b).

Psychologists have been concerned about the long-term effects of the role and status changes associated with changes in income-earning roles between male and female heads of households, and between children and adults. These changes may be so difficult for the household to assimilate that individuals cease to participate in the income-earning project. It is essential to watch these changes over time, as introduced changes may alter decision-making and power relationships within the household quite slowly. The kinds of families that should be targeted first for change, and the factors that determine whether they can adapt or whether they are likely instead to experience stress and possible disruption or violence, need to be defined and investigated.

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