WI Law In Action Podcast: Nyamagaga Gondwe on the Tax-Invisible Labor Problem and the Reinforcement of Oppressive power Dynamics

WI Law in Action podcastOn the latest episode of the WI Law in Action podcast from the UW Law Library, host Kris Turner interviews Nyamagaga Gondwe, Assistant Professor of Tax Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School and scholar of economic justice, race and the law, and tax policy.  Professor Gondwe discusses her article, “The Tax-Invisible Labor Problem: Care, Work, Kinship, and Income Security Programs in the IRC” which is forthcoming in the Boston University Law Review.


Gondwe on the exclusion of unpaid care labor from the gross domestic product and how it adversely affects women:

Photograph of Nyamagaga Gondwe
Nyamagaga Gondwe

At the center of the unpaid care work that I’m concerned about… is basically the work that is done to keep the household going… These activities are essential to the national economy, but because they’re not accounted for as market labor, in the same way as market labor, they are not included in the gross domestic product. And that is literally a way of undervaluing the work that is done in that sphere… It’s something like 1.19 trillion.

The lack of inclusion of unpaid care labor adversely affects women because as you know,… women in heterosexual relationships are the demographic that performs the majority of this labor. And in the last few decades, as women have entered the marketplace, there hasn’t been a similar shift in the division of household labor. Women have entered the marketplace, but at the same time kept up the amount of household labor that they were responsible for or that they were assumed to do when they were primarily homemakers as a class.  And what’s interesting about that is that the lack of accounting for unpaid care labor… artificially deflates the amount of productivity that women are doing… It seem like if you are working a 40 hour work week in an office and you then go home and you work another 40 hour week in your home, you are only given credit for that first 40 hours even though you’ve functionally performed 80 hours of work that has contributed to sustaining yourself, your family, and likely the community around you.


Gondwe on the tax code’s narrative of a hetero construct of labor in marriage:

In the development of law surrounding the taxation of individuals, when the tax code adopts the idea that the married couple should be taxed jointly, one of the assumptions that is being supported is that when income comes into the house or when somebody performs labor within the house, all of that activity all gets wound up and in the end there’s distributed equally within the household. And this unquestioned norm of shared resources is one that I find very concerning because it can obscure very important private internal power dynamics within a marital household, especially with respect to money.

If we are thinking about families today and families in the past in which the person who does the majority of the market labor is the man in the heterosexual marriage and the person who does the majority of the home production labor is the woman, then we have this problem where the woman is very much beholden to whether or not her husband decides to share money with her. We can’t just assume that every family has an egalitarian perspective on money. And the subsuming of women into this thing that we call marriage makes it difficult to assess their economic health as individuals because they are treated as though they are earning the same money that their partner is earning…  It doesn’t have to be that your husband is intentionally abusing you, but if you only get a hundred dollars a week in cash to go grocery shopping and you don’t see anything else that comes from the labor, then you are not given the same autonomy as somebody who has equal access to the resources as the person who works out in the market.


Gondwe on black kinship networks as counter-narratives to the isolated nuclear family as envisioned by tax law

This assumption that the family is composed of the married heterosexual man and his wife and their marital children… is limiting in how we understand how resources are shared within families. The concept of black kinship networks enters the story as the counter-narrative to the isolated nuclear family story that dominates the law, the tax law especially. And with black kinship networks, what you have is family groups that distribute labor and resources according to relative need within the family group…. Black families will rely on each other for both cash assistance to do things like pay rent or fix a car in order to have transportation. And they will do things that are more service oriented. They will watch each other’s children, they will pick each other up for work in order to drive to work or to go to the hospital. They will care for the ill, they will care for the elderly. And many of these activities are not activities that they are going to be compensated for because you are doing it within the family context….  These activities that are taking place in order to help members of the community survive are non-remunerative and they are invisible to the tax system, which is the crux of the issue in the paper…


Gondwe on how the tax code can reinforce oppressive power dynamics

I don’t think there was malevolence, but I do think that the code was written by people who had a certain perspective. It was written by middle class white men whose perspective of the world was that if you perform labor and receive a wage, then you should contribute your wage back to the government in order for them to provide services. And what was missing from that conversation and that analysis is the question of how does the economic environment we exist in either create or reinforce power dynamics that are harmful to people we consider marginalized: women in gender context and then people of color in the racial and ethnic context. I just don’t think that the people who drafted the code were thinking about families like black families in rural Mississippi in 1913, even though those families would be impacted by the law in one way or another…

The idea that somebody cannot receive money for the work that they’re doing, it amplifies vulnerability, it creates this sense that you are going to be reliant on the person, your partner, for example, if they’re the one who brings money home or you’re going to have to work. And we see this, I think especially among women who are potentially single mothers who have to work, but then somebody has to watch their kids. Then that’s when we see the black kinship network dynamic taking hold…  And it kicks the bucket down the road without resolving any problems. I think that’s how the economic solvency and tax and visibility issue work together. They amplify, I think the vulnerability, the economic vulnerability that many women experience…

The very concept, the trope of the welfare queen, the black woman who is sitting at home collecting government checks and not contributing to society, that image was a powerful image that caused American people to believe that people who are “Not working,” are a drain on society and should not be able to receive government benefits. The irony of that is that there has never, in American history, been a point at which black women have not worked, not any point in American history. Under the system of slavery, black women worked and were eventually treated as chattel as the people who bore the responsibility of bringing new enslaved people into the world…

I hope that readers take away the idea that power matters… If a law is written in such a way that it reinforces existing gendered power dynamics in society, so that it reinforces work that is traditionally done by men and deemphasizes the work that is traditionally done by women, then it will amplify the dynamic in which men are more able to capitalize on their labor and use that as a bargaining tool in relationships and women’s labor is put on the back burner.

To read more of Professor Gondwe’s scholarship, see her profiles on SSRN and the UW Law School Digital Repository.