The Great Recession accelerated the “hollowing out” of the American middle class. Income inequality is at its highest point since the Great Depression, and since the recession officially ended, top earners have taken 93 percent of the income gains. When the housing bubble popped, it took with it millions of jobs in the $40,000-100,000 salary range, replacing them in large part with low-level service jobs.
It comes down to globalization.
The rewards for high performers who can take advantage of the interconnected global economy have never been greater. It’s nothing new to remark that foreign competition has exerted relentless downward pressure on the earnings of low skill workers. What is new is that these forces appear to have reached the low and middle quartiles of the middle class.
This troubling trend exists alongside the decline of another American institution: the nuclear family. Daniel Patrick Moynihan sounded the alarm on the disintegration of the black family in the 1970s, but today the white illegitimacy rate is higher now than the black rate was then. More than half of births to women under 30 now occur to unmarried women. Liberals, perhaps with an eye towards statistics that suggest married people are more likely to vote Republican, have responded to this crisis with, at best, studied unconcern, and at worst active acclaim.
Does the new economic paradigm mean that old family structures are obsolete, and that policymakers should accept cohabitation and bastardy as the new normal? The GOP did lose single women by an overwhelming margin. And what might be called “alternative” family structures are becoming more and more common, and therefore more electorally powerful. Continuing to press for the traditional family could present real costs at the ballot box.
But the economic costs of not doing so are even greater. The cost of raising a child has increased dramatically in the postwar period. A bachelor’s degree, once a ticket into the middle class, does not produce the earning power it once did. At the same time, college has become more expensive and more crucial to social mobility. In this environment, high college costs, few middle class jobs, the traditional family, led by a male breadwinner and supported by a female homemaker, provides an insuperable economic advantage to its members.
The first, and most important, of these advantages is the 21st century housewife. I saw it firsthand in my own family. My father didn’t have to worry about bills, shopping, laundry, budgeting, homework help, car maintenance, internet access, financial aid, disciplinary problems (there were many), dry cleaning, access to healthy and nutritious foods, car insurance, health insurance, elder care decisions and much, much more. My mother handled all those things. The problems a 21st century American family must navigate are so complicated that one person, college educated, is barely enough to handle them. These skills are crucial to a successful family, but they aren’t highly compensated in the labor market, which is why it is crucial that the domestic arrangement have some degree of stability, the stability only a legally enforceable marriage contract can provide.
Having the woman in the home enables the male to focus exclusively on maximizing his earning power. Why the male? Childbearing and childcare are time-consuming enterprises that damage women’s ability to compete with childless women and men for high-paying jobs. Studies show that mothers in the workforce earn less than childless women, who in turn earn less than men. Dawn Porter, founder of Trilogy Films and an ex-television executive had this to say during an interview with NPR: “If you look at the time when young women are having children, it is a very sensitive time in their careers. It is when they’re in their late 20s, 30s, that’s the time when the employers are really looking to who are our superstars, right? Who are we going to bet the farm on? And if you look like you have a commitment to anything other than getting ahead in getting – making your workplace number one, you know, there – I think there often is some hesitancy in giving you the plum assignments and that affects women more I think than it does affect men.” The fact that the husband does not have to bear the children or spend time on household organization enables him to specialize, which is crucial to catapulting his income, and the family’s into the “globalization-proof” brackets. With the middle of the income spectrum shrinking, one high income job beats two middle income jobs hands down.
And the proof is in the pudding. Charles Murray showed in Coming Apart that elite earners are better educated, more civically involved, more churchgoing, and most of all, more married. Liberal publications can wax enthusiastically about the “end of men,” “manning up,” and the legitimacy (pun intended) of single motherhood. But the fact is that their readership consists of people who are members of traditional, nuclear families. In some regions of the country, a stay-at-home mom has become a status symbol, an emblem of financial success in upper middle class families. I would suggest that the relationship is very much the other way round, that a mother in the home is a necessary ingredient for economic achievement.