Buying time is not an option

Time and poverty go hand in hand

Lyndall Strazdins, Amelia Yazidjoglou

Economics and finance, Government and governance, Social policy, Health | Australia, The World

17 October 2019

Poverty is a chronic lack of access to resources, but one of the most valuable and irreplaceable of those resources is a person’s time, Lyndall Strazdins and Amelia Yazidjoglou write.

Traditionally, poverty has been measured in terms of income. This is because a lack of income constrains opportunity, choice and the fulfilment of fundamental needs.

Income is viewed as the ultimate resource and poverty as the dire compromises on living standards driven by its absence. However, there is another resource — time — which also constrains what people can achieve and access, and it is fundamental to poverty.

Everyone needs time to earn an income, so time and income have a two-way relationship. People also need time for much more; social relationships, giving and receiving care and love, and rest and recreation. These cannot occur unless people have sufficient time, even if they have sufficient income.

People also need time for their health – to prepare nutritious meals and to exercise for example. Without giving time to their health they risk developing diseases linked to obesity like cardiovascular illness or diabetes.

Indeed, time and money constrain opportunity, freedom and the ability to live a meaningful and healthy life. Yet time has received far less interest and is rarely a target for anti-poverty action.

More on this: Policy File: Poverty’s many dimensions

One reason why time has not been taken seriously is that everyone has 24 hours each day. Problems of time scarcity and poverty are seen as a problem of choice rather than a problem of power and distribution.

Time has also been viewed as a sort of secondary problem: the real problem is lack of income, which then determines a person’s ability to allocate and control their time. If people had enough money, some argue, then they would be able to control their time.

The problem with this view is that it ignores that time and income are co-dependent. Yes, income can help buy time, but time is needed before income can be earned. This is where other aspects of inequality come in because not everyone actually has the same access to time.

For example, across all nations, developed and developing, women do more unpaid work than men. The monetary value of their work can be anything from 10 to 50 per cent of GDP.

Indeed the World Economic Forum estimated in 2015 that an additional 20 to 60 per cent would be added to GDP globally if women’s time in unpaid work was recognised and appropriately valued.

More on this: Measuring what really matters in global poverty

This exemplifies the way time and money, and their interplay, combine to define power and opportunity. In the labour market, the most disempowered workers work longer and harder to earn the same amount of income as others, and are left with less time.

Outside the labour market, certain forms of work receive no income at all, yet they must be done. Unpaid and undervalued, women’s time is spent on unpaid work limits capacity and opportunity.

It forces trade-offs, and choices to earn income, to rest, or to engage in recreation, become more difficult.

Marx understood the fundamental significance of time in the social order when he wrote “moments are the elements of profit”, but he misunderstood the deeper role played by time in constructing power, focusing on one social divide, class, while ignoring another, gender.

For example, an estimated 200 million hours daily are dedicated to water collection across Africa, with six kilometres the average distance walked, mostly by women and girls, to source water.

Lack of adequate infrastructure such as suitable roads or access to clean water consumes precious time, generally women’s time, and poses an insurmountable barrier to workforce participation, income and education, further reinforcing disadvantage. Time and income join forces to entrench poverty, also giving it a gendered dimension.

The notion of the working poor also rests on both time and income deprivation. In some countries, including Australia, working long hours, or full-time employment is no longer an assurance of escaping income poverty.

More on this: Getting the measure of global poverty

In this instance, the working poor remain unable to generate sufficient income or spare time to move out of deprivation. In Australia, of all people in income poverty, 27.1 per cent are employed full time with the majority of working poor households including couples with children.

People living in these households are generally well educated and are more likely than other poor households to primarily source their income from wages and salary instead of government benefits.

Income poor households often spend longer on domestic tasks, as they are unable to afford time-saving devices such as dishwashers. This further reinforces how time and income are defining the experience of poverty.

Unlike income, everyone gets the same 24 hours every day of time. This means that there is no such thing as ‘no time’, but the scarcity of time, when there is an absolute limit every day, makes a shortage of it crucial. There is no way to borrow or save time, and this makes its allocation when under pressure, a trade-off.

Some time is valued, and some isn’t, and this creates disadvantage. A shortage of time sets up either/or options and creates trade-offs in terms of health, rest, education, or work. These trade-offs shape those dire compromises in living standards that we refer to when we use the term poverty.

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