The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers & Fathers are Going Broke, by Elizabeth Waren and Amelia Warren Tyagi. Published in 2003. Hardcover, 272 pages.
Even though we began a discussion of this book in a recent Coming Attractions post, there is a lot more to unpack about this book than we covered a few weeks ago.
Despite my general disagreement with its conclusions, I liked that The Two-Income Trap was honest about a critical cause of the family economic crisis that was introduced when families switched from the one-income model to the two-income model. The authors struck a key note by undercutting the falsehood turned “truism” which was made popular by Betty Friedan. Namely, that a houswife’s job could by capably handled by a competent 8-year-old.
Warren and her daughter, working mothers and committed feminists, openly acknowledging that the two-income trap burdens families in ways other than just economics was an intellectually honest, cross-partisan, breath of fresh air that we won’t hear anyone utter today except religious or conservative commentators. They note that the at home wife and mother was a family’s safety net, and here’s why. When hard times hit a family whose entire economic structure is based on two incomes, the family begins to sink almost immediately because its income and resources are all accounted for. Conversely, if the wife has to get a job temporarily to help things stay afloat while her husband looks for a new job or recovers from an injury, her income is an actual boost to help cover existing expenses.
All of the aforementioned economic considerations are only part of the equation, and astonishingly, Warren also acknowledges the importance of wives as cregivers to aging parents as well as children, and the boon this is to not only families but community life. Before you get too excited, Warren is in no way suggesting that women return home en masse from the work force. Instead, she explores what she thinks is the key econimic impetus behind the exponential rise in two-income families: the urgent need for parents to raise their children in the safest envirnonment with the best schools they can obtain.
With this as her foundation, she asserts that this urgent need for the best educational outcomes for kids effectively caused the parents to engage in a bidding war for homes in the best school districts, driving up suburban housing costs. Because a greater family income translates into approval for a bigger mortgage, Warren argues, the income produced by mothers is going directly toward monthly expenses rather than toward savings. Additionally, she goes to great pains to destroy the argument that middle-class families are over leveraged and hanging on due to overconsumption, but that they are in trouble because their already precarious situation offers little to no financial margin to handle the inevitable challenges of life such as deaths, illnesses, or income reductions that come in a volatile economic climate.
After laying the case for her proposed solutions using real families as examples, Warren begins to lay the groundwork for what she believes government can do to help solve the problem. She writes at length about predatory lending and regulating the banking and credit card industries. In fact, she spends a lot of time on those two issues, sounding a lot like the Elizabeth Warren we have known and loved (or loathed) in the years since she entered the political arena. There was one particular solution she proposed that no one could have convinced me she ever believed; the issue of school choice. The biggest shocker was a pretty strong advocation of vouchers, with emphasis on parental choice:
Short of buying a new home, parents currently have only one way to escape a failing public school: Send the kids to private school. But there is another alternative, one that would keep much-needed tax dollars inside the public school system while still reaping the advantages offered by a voucher program. Local governments could enact meaningful reform by enabling parents to choose from among all the public schools in a locale, with no presumptive assignment based on neighborhood. Under a public school voucher program, parents, not bureaucrats, would have the power to pick schools for their children—and to choose which schools would get their children’s vouchers.
Obviously, her proposed voucher program wouldn’t support private or religious schools, but it still opens public schools up to the forces of competition and the related accountability. The far left and teacher’s unions hate that idea. So in the wake of her increasingly high ambitions for public office, Warren decided that parental choice isn’t the be all end all anymore, but in 2003 when she wrote her book, she said:
any policy [which] loosens the ironclad relationship between location-location-location and school-school-school would eliminate the need for parents to pay an inflated price for a home just because it happened to lie within the boundaries of a desirable school district.
Gotta love politics.
Overall, this book is a mixed bag. It’s better than most progressive manifestos you’ll read because whatever it’s failings, it at least parks alongside the truth sometimes. The title alone is shocking from the likes of Warren.
At the end of the day, it’s mostly a treatise on how government can save us from ourselves and what policies can be enacted so that the two-income family becomes as viable an entity as the one-income family once was. Without the sacrifices to Mom’s autonomy.
When I didn’t hate it, I liked it.
3 out of 5 stars.