Gender, Custom, and Human Capital: Intra-Household Allocation in 19th Century Britain | Abstract

The household is a fundamental institution of everyday life, and yet little is known of its inner workings in 19th Century Britain.

Household decision-making mechanisms, especially regarding the distribution of scarce resources to girls and women, offer insights into the extent of customary and economically-motivated gender bias in industrializing Britain, and reveal how households responded to and influenced labor markets. Bias in intra-household allocation is of concern since it is access to resources—especially human capital ones—on which other economic outcomes depend.

In this paper, I explore how working-class families made decisions on how to allocate inflexible budgets, and to what degree these allocations were strategically earner-biased.

Using budgets from working-class British households spanning the 1800s, I investigate the presence and determinants of gender bias in children’s allocations of three categories of human capital-building commodities: nutrition, healthcare, and education. Using a hurdle model, I test separately for bias in the household’s purchase participation and amount decisions, allowing me to identify the types of children favored in resource allocation, and the channel most prone to discrimination. I also examine the influence of gendered labor markets and household bargaining dynamics on human capital allocations.

Although my results indicate less pro-male bias than qualitative literature suggests, in many cases, they reflect our understanding of the period: for example, finding customary pro-male bias in food provision to infants, and strategic pro-female bias amongst retirees. Schooling is also found to be an alternative to childhood employment where the opportunity cost of schooling was low, rather than a strategic investment in high-earning children.