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Half-baked reality of two-income families myth

Brandon McGinley’s Letter from America finds contradictions in the social policy position of a leading contender for the US presidency

In the clown car that is the Democratic Party primary for president of the United States, the senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, has distinguished herself with bold and controversial policy proposals.

Before her political career, though, the senator now known as a left-wing champion was known mostly for a groundbreaking book whose thesis was, in certain respects, more palatable to conservatives and traditionalists than liberals and progressives: the Two-Income Trap.


A ‘raw deal’

Warren made the important observation that the two-income system for raising families has been a raw deal.

As the expectation of family-sustaining wages became obsolete and wages stagnated, so major costs of everyday living and access to the middle class, such as homes in good school districts and college tuition, grew markedly.

The stay-at-home mother, previously a source of social and financial security, was being increasingly compelled into the workforce not so much by culture as by economic necessity.


‘intolerable abuse’

The situation Pope Pius XI warned us about and condemned in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno has come to pass: “It is an intolerable abuse, and to be abolished at all cost, for mothers on account of the father’s low wage to be forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the home.”

While Warren would certainly not accept the strict gender-role framing of Pius’s teaching, it’s safe to assume she would accept the spirit of it.

The result of the two-income trap has been a subtle but total reorientation of the way we think about family roles and duties.

Having one parent dedicated to housework and childcare is now considered a luxury rather than the norm.


Single income

Now, it’s certainly true that forming and raising a family on a single income is more plausible than our Instagram culture makes it seem.

With cleverness and sacrifice and the support of friends and extended family, more is possible with less than one might imagine.

Even so, for an increasing number of families even that modest lifestyle is simply out of reach.

This can be hard for those from previous generations to understand, because in the not-too-distant past it seemed that any man with any level of education and any skills could, through raw effort, squeeze enough income out of the economy to raise a family comfortably.

This rosy assumption was, at least in America, part of a national creed, an essential quality that distinguished us from the Soviet barbarians—that in a free economy, with gumption and savvy and thrift, every family can thrive on a single income.


Making it work

And if you can’t make it work, it’s because you haven’t tried hard enough.

On this view, the free market always rewards virtue (another black-versus-white Cold War holdover), and therefore it is a vice not to respond to the market.

And so we end up with an assumption that whatever work hours, whatever moral and physical risks, whatever moves across the city or the country the market demands, the father and, therefore, the family must conform to them.



This idea is often framed simply and uncritically as the modern manifestation of the ancient and natural fatherly duty to provide for his family. But this elides just how distinctively modern it is.

The idea of the father spending the majority of his waking hours away from the family; the expectation that a family would relocate several times to chase economic opportunity; the assumption that households are to be made up of nuclear families—parents and their children—who are not deeply embedded in extended families and other communities of social and economic support: These would have been considered strange and serious hardships to most people before the Industrial Revolution—and a good many afterward, too.


Family values

That we consider these conditions normal is not some kind of hard-nosed realism, but a capitulation to the hegemony of the market, placing its needs above genuine family values like stability and leisure and communion.

Moreover, the idea that a father fulfills his duty to the family primarily through his financial contribution was an essential step toward our culture of divorce.

The solution to the two-income trap is neither to embrace it uncritically, nor to chase some idealised mid-20th century notion of family life.

Rather, it is to look to the deeper traditions of human communities, where families thrived not based on rugged individualism or strict divisions of labour, but on their embeddedness in strong communities and the willingness of each member to contribute in his or her own way—and then applying those lessons in creative ways to our modern economy.


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