There is a good chance Elizabeth Warren will be a 2020 candidate for either president or vice president. On account of this, I just read her 2003 book, “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are (Still) Going Broke.” A second edition came out in 2016. It is a sobering read, and it caused me to think about a number of things.
Her book’s thesis is supported by thorough research and copious, highly informative footnotes. The point established is simple but very troubling: most parents raising children today are economically and psychologically (due to stress) worse off than they were in the 1970s. The main reasons for this are complicated, but are primarily driven by: stagnating wages, which have actually decreased in real dollars since the 1970s, the high cost of housing, health care, child care and education. Her surprising, and counterintuitive, insight is the shift to a two-income family “norm” has actually hurt us and made us collectively more at risk for household disaster and bankruptcy than we were in the 1970s and before.
Prior to the 1970s, the operating premise of our business, economic and banking systems was the compensation for one adult’s full-time employment was expected (by society, employers and employees) to be sufficient to house, feed and raise a family. Over the last 40 years, that premise has been tossed out the window — and with that toss, the law of unintended consequences has shown itself with brutal force.
Let me be clear, I believe the feminist movement, which really took off in the 1970s, has accomplished many, many very important things. I do not disapprove of the feminist movement — not by a long shot. But there were, and are, ramifications of it that were not carefully thought out and remain problematic today. One of them is the effect of a 100% increase (almost “overnight”) in the potentially available work force, as vast numbers of women entered the labor market. You don’t have to have a degree in economics to guess this was bound to give employers an advantage and depress wages. That part is obvious.
But there were, and remain, other consequences. Our economic system is filled with many players who are always, and I really mean always, looking to get as much money out of working people as possible. Suddenly, there were way more working people — husbands and wives, pushing up prices. Adjusted for inflation, since the 1970s, the cost of housing is up 100% to 900% (depending on the area); the cost of a car has gone up 100% (and two cars are needed for two incomes, so that’s a double hit); the cost of health insurance has gone up over 500%; the cost of college education has gone up 150-300% and there is massive college loan debt now hitting students and their families. During that same period of time, the average income for an American middle-class worker has gone up a mere 35%. Even with two people working, the incomes vs. expenses don’t match up.
When those numbers don’t match, families must take on debt — not because they want more things, they just want to survive and stay in their home. And American families have taken on debt, massively. In fact, prior to the 1970s, banking regulations literally made it impossible for families to be in debt to the degree they are today. That’s good for banks, bad for families.
A critical mistake was made by everyone during and after the 1970s: The goal should have been more than simply getting women all the same rights, including the right to work for equal pay, as men. The goal should have been to get families the ability to live on the salary of either the man or the woman — because what actually happened quite quickly is that both the husband and the wife have been forced to work, leaving no time to have kids or tend the family hearth.
I hear someone say, thanks for the economics lessen, but what’s this got to with religion? A good question that deserves an answer: In the 1970s, the “sacramental” significance of marriage began to break down seriously. The idea that marriage was, by natural and sacred law, a lifetime union related especially to the creation and nurturing of children, started to weaken and has continued to do so till now. Today in the U.S., just barely 50% of children are being born and raised in a two-parent household (and in Europe, it is below 50%).
Because we have tossed out the sacred aspect of sex, marriage and family, we have inadvertently allowed for a system built purely upon the role and “rights” of each separate individual. This might even sound like a good thing ... that is, until you think about what bankers, real estate companies and college administrators do with this new individualistic arrangement. Each and every individual person is now viewed as a profit opportunity to be exploited. Each and every person is viewed as a source for hefty payments of interest and fees and sales. More people — every member of the family — are forced to feed these predatory business models. This is now our norm. We take it for granted.
Elizabeth Warren has made a valid point. The two-income model for the family is a trap. Turning this model into the norm has not been a healthy thing for our country and our families. I personally don’t care which parent works — husband or wife — but I do care mightily when both are forced to work while oftentimes 80% or more of one spouse’s compensation goes to pay for child care. The job of raising children and running a healthy, nurturing home is a full-time occupation and a sacred obligation both to our children and to our community.
I encourage everyone to glance at the most recent research on the history of marriage and the family in the West. The so-called “Christian model” for marriage and family took many hundreds of years of hard work to accomplish — work that went on between the 400s till the 1400s, a thousand years. The Greeks, Romans and Jews viewed marriage as largely a business arrangement. Men could divorce their wives quite easily. It was not so easy for women to divorce their husbands, unless you were a Greek or Roman woman of the upper classes.
The breakdown of the family is actually big business for far too many companies in America. And further, the surest way, statistically, to become poor and to file for bankruptcy is to become a single mother, either by a bad accident, a bad choice, or a bad man.
The surest and best way to improve the overall quality of life in our country is to place the betterment of the family, rather than the individual, front and center in all our laws, programs, regulation and education. If we keep going in the direction we’re headed, pretty soon every man, woman and child (except the top 5%) in the country between the ages of 16 to 66 will be forced to work in underpaid jobs with no benefits, while our home life goes to wrack and ruin — enabling the financial industries to gorge themselves on our pounds of flesh.
Christian teaching on the supreme and sacred value of marriage and family is the cornerstone of Western civilization, period. We cannot afford to throw that baby out with the bathwater. Unintended consequences are tough, unforgiving teachers.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.