Why current definitions of family income are misleading, and why this matters for measures of inequality


By Nancy Folbre,

Researchers studying income distribution in the United States seem reluctant to acknowledge the family as an important unit of production and distribution. As a result, they often rely on statistics that provide a misleading picture of inequalities based on class, race or ethnicity, and especially gender.

Incomplete definitions of both family and income either obscure or render invisible transfers between and within households, including the value of housework and family care. Evidence from specialized surveys—such as the Health and Retirement Survey, the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics, the Survey of Income and Program Participation, and the American Time Use Survey—clearly demonstrate the quantitative relevance of these omissions.

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