Micro-Entrepreneurship As a Safety Net for Economic Uncertainty for Mexican and U.S. Mothers

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 4:00 PM-5:30 PM
TW2.1.03 (Tower Two)
F. Alethea Marti, UCLA Center for the Study of Women, Los Angeles, CA
While economic inequality is visible on the national and global scale, it also has effects on the micro-level of the family and household, in the ways parents strategize about job choices, money and childcare, especially in situations where long-term employment and wage labor are perceived as either unreliable or difficult to obtain. One solution families use to deal with job uncertainty and un- or under-employment is economic diversification: dividing a household’s, or even an individual’s, time and effort across multiple independent projects to mitigate risks and assure at least some income at any given time.

This paper draws upon interviews and ethnographic observations of working-class urban families in southern Mexico (2007-2009) and the U.S.A (2013-present) to examine the situations of full-time mothers who supplement (and sometimes exceed) their husbands’ incomes by juggling multiple micro-entrepreneurial side-projects in addition to home and childcare responsibilities. Some of the projects in this study included: running in-home snack stores, selling Avon or similar brand cosmetics, cutting and styling hair, and making and selling handmade crafts and clothing either locally or via the Internet. While each individual project yields very little income, these women combine multiple activities with strong local and long-distance kin networks to create economic safety nets that protect their families from fluctuating and uncertain economic environments and can adapt to changing family needs.

As part of this economic strategizing, families must balance not only the labor they spend on income-earning activities but also that used for child-care, housework, children’s (and sometimes adults’) education, and reciprocal favors exchanged within kin and neighbor networks (e.g. by babysitting for a relative or pitching in to help with a wedding or other large celebration).

In interviews, Mexican mothers described self-run entrepreneurship as being less risky than wage labor (with its threats of unemployment or cuts in wages or hours) as well as allowing them the flexibility to intensify their entrepreneurial work when money is low or expenses are high, and to reduce it when one needs to take care of family obligations. Both U.S. and Mexican mothers also emphasized the benefit of being able to flexibly structure work hours around children’s and family’s needs, and placed high value on the relationships they developed with their customers and on their own personal satisfaction in designing and carrying out their entrepreneurial projects.

In addition to illuminating the lives of families affected by macro-level economic uncertainty, in-depth micro analytic research can also aid in policy development: helping to explain why some women take advantage of (and benefit from) micro-entrepreneurship loans while others do not, and also why and under what conditions an entrepreneur might prefer to keep a side-business small rather using outside resources to grow it into a larger enterprise.