Michael R. Strain: Stop poor-mouthing the two-earner family
When it comes to pressures on working parents, it is usually the political left that is loudest in calling for more government intervention to help them. Its focus is on traditional liberal programs like universal child care and mandates for more generous family leave. But some on the political right have recently expressed concern, in this case about two-earner couples.
This campaign on the right got a lot of publicity in January when Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked viewers to hold their applause for rising women’s wages, arguing that this higher pay reduces marriage rates, increases out-of-wedlock births and leads to social problems. He has also characterized the mass entry of mothers into the workforce as a “disaster for families.”
Carlson is not a lone wolf in pushing this view. While not as blunt as he was, Helen Andrews, managing editor of the conservative Washington Examiner magazine, made a similar case in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. She, too, argues that public policy has gone too far in encouraging women to work.
Why? A large part of her answer is rooted in financial insecurity. She writes: “When mothers started entering paid employment in large numbers in the 1970s, it led to a bidding war over middle-class amenities that left everyone paying more for the privilege of being no better off than before.” This, in turn, has made marriage less appealing and less common, she argues, and has contributed to a crisis in the American family.
I share many of the tenets of social conservatives. I believe that strong families should be a central concern of public policy. I am very concerned about the decline of marriage and believe that marriage — and not just “stable parenting” or cohabitation — matters enormously, both to individuals and to society. But the thinking represented by Carlson and Andrews is way off base.
Let’s start with the incorrect argument that women’s contributions to household income have been completely consumed by the increase in costs — Andrews’s “bidding war” — driven by their decision to work. Estimates show that middle-income households have seen their incomes rise by one-third since 1979, before taxes and government transfers, even after taking into account price increases in overall goods and services, including education, housing and child care.
And after accounting for taxes and transfers — some of which are designed to offset the higher prices of middle-class amenities — households’ inflation-adjusted incomes have gone up by 46 percent. These gains occurred at the same time that women significantly increased their participation in the workforce.
But let’s assume for argument’s sake that the concern is correct. Even if all the additional income generated by working women were spent on goods and services whose prices had increased because of their employment, that itself would be evidence that their presence in the labor force is a good thing. Women would be revealing that they believe they are better off working, even if their paid labor doesn’t increase their income after expenses. After all, why else would they be working if it didn’t make them better off in some broader sense?
The argument that policy has gone too far in encouraging women to work seems to minimize their role in the economy. For much of the post-World War II period, women have entered the workforce as men have exited it. And for decades, a large share of overall economic growth was driven by the fact that women were entering at a faster rate than men were leaving. That’s not small beer. Neither is unlocking the talents, ideas and energy of half the human race.
On that last point, remember that the policies some social conservatives want to put the brakes on were not created in a vacuum. The U.S. safety net encourages mothers to work in part because of the view that this is better over the long term for them and their children. And, of course, removing barriers to employment for women overall is a response to centuries of repression and inequality.
The argument of the conservative critics also seems to suggest that female workers are to blame for the higher cost of middle-class amenities. That’s both insulting and wrong.
Remember that prices are determined by both supply and demand. Certainly the price of child care has increased because demand for it has risen with more women in the work force. But if the supply of child care had kept pace with demand, the price would have stayed the same. Supply did not increase as aggressively as demand in part because of policies restricting it.
Supply restrictions are a major factor in price increases in health care, housing and education, as well. So are policies that increase demand for those goods and services by subsidizing them. If you’re looking for a reason why their costs have risen so much, start with policies that subsidize their demand and restrict their supply, not with women working.
I confess I’m confused by another aspect of these conservatives’ argument. In their enthusiasm for families with only one working parent, and their support for helping men’s wages and industries specifically, they sometimes write as if women are being forced to work — as if subsidizing child care or their earnings creates a nudge too strong to resist. This is nonsense. For one, despite the policies the critics bemoan, women still work at lower rates than men.
Andrews writes: Stopping “the trends set in motion by the feminist revolution would leave women more free to follow a diversity of paths.” What is stopping women from doing this now? Plenty of households — those with low and high incomes — are able to get by with one breadwinner. Just as it is for two-earner households, this is a choice. It comes with its own challenges and benefits.
Trumpian populism has intensified nostalgia for life in the 1950s, including family life. But who, even in the working class, would really trade places with someone living in 1953, with its much lower living standards and opportunities, and racial cruelties and injustices? Probably not many women, let alone racial minorities, that’s for sure. And probably not many white men, for that matter.
In the end, the good things about family life that social conservatives rightly celebrate are perfectly compatible with two-earner households. Both spouses working does not necessarily make a marriage weaker. It does not mean children will be less loved and less nurtured. Instead, the choice a two-earner family makes is exactly that — a choice. And a choice motivated by the best interest of the family is one that should be respected.