The Two-Income Trap

two income trap

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.






11 thoughts on “The Two-Income Trap

  1. Krysta says:

    I think a lot of people would like to have one parent stay home, but it seems like the basic costs of living often make living on one income difficult. You can certainly find ways to save on things like food or luxury items, but there are consistent costs like rent and health insurance that can be incredibly high and necessitate two incomes; cutting back on coffee isn’t going to give you enough money to pay your rent, which is what financial articles often seem to imply. Maybe we should be thinking about affordable housing and such if we want to give people the option to stay home.


  2. Elspeth says:

    I agree that economic realities are harsh for many couples.

    When we were a young couple, a VERY young newlywed couple, we had twins on top of our 11-month old, and daycare would have killed us. So I stayed home. It would have cost more to work.

    My husband got very used to that setup and so worked harder to mover up so that we could maintain it as the status quo.

    Which brings Warren’s point back up. If he takes an income hit of some sort, my working would be more beneficial than if we were both working and something happened because more than likely my income would already be going towards monthly expenses.

    I kind of liked her idea about cutting at the foundation of an education system that penalizes poorer parents and encourages parents to stretch themselves crepe paper thin afford a house in a good school district.

    Ultimately, though, I don’t think that’s the underlying cause of the problem. One component, yes, but not the root. The root is that we have a system which incentivizes all the wrong things, and I mean at the corporate level as much as on an individual level. Anyone who thinks that what we currently have is a capitalist system is fooling themselves. In a capitalist system both Goldman Sachs and GM would have hit the skids the same as many of their employees did.

    But now I’m just ranting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robyn says:

    “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.”

    This made me laugh-out-loud. The first thing that I thought was, “Well ‘Ms.’ Friedan” (interject very unfeminine snort laugh right here) “… may YOUR house could be run by an 8 yo … the family I’m cultivating is far more complex than that.”

    “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.”

    Or, we could just have the family live within their means from the onset and have a savings account for just such occasions. (not my original thought, borrowed from, well, pretty much every financially responsible person out there)

    …. gee, I sound quite jaded today!

    AND ….. there it is …. the government can save us, all! Because people are just too foolish to be held accountable for their own choices.

    Els, have you read Suzanne Venker’s title, The Two-income Trap? I have it, I’ve just not read it yet. I’m pretty sure it’s a detailed version of her idea of sequencing which actually came from someone else, that she gives credit to for the idea; I just cannot remember who it was.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. bikebubba says:

    I like the bit about how to escape a failing government school–you can move, pay for a private school…..and…..what was that other option two million families are using these days that’s far cheaper than even parochial schools? What was it called again? :^)

    Seriously, ya gotta wonder if some people get out very often.

    More directly to the topic, I remember calculating the ROI if my wife had worked at her job after our first was born–after we took out taxes, tithe, daycare, car expenses, formula, extra clothes, eating out, extra medical costs, and the like, we got to about a buck an hour out of what was actually a pretty good salary for her. Add to that the relationships we’ve had with friends and neighbors because we weren’t both out there chasing the brass ring, And each other–Mrs. Bubba got tired, but nowhere near as tired as she would have been with 40/week.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Robyn says:


    I remember when my husband sat me down and showed me the spread sheets after factoring in the reality of the numbers that offset the paycheque; over pay to pay; month to month and at the end of the year. Technically, it just ‘appeared’ that there was a second income because after you backed out the reality of what it cost for me to work outside the home, that was the truth of it for us too! … about a buck an hour.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Elspeth says:

    @ bike:

    When this book was written, people still weren’t taking homeschooling seriously as a viable educational option. I still – after 8 years homeschooling our two youngest- get the same questions I’ve answered 100 times.

    Although I do have to add that our version of homeschooling is not cheap. Cheaper than full time private school, yes, but not free. And despite not using the public system currently, we still had to pay a premium to live in the safest neighborhood we could afford.

    Of course, those zip codes usually overlap with the “best schools” zip codes.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. bikebubba says:

    :^) 2003, the year the book was published, is the year after my family started homeschooling, and the numbers were actually getting up into the million range. Was firmly in the era when homeschoolers (and not the children of immigrants from India) were dominating the geography and spelling bees–I don’t think the author really has an excuse for not knowing about this stuff. Perhaps the man on the street didn’t always know, but Warren? Her editors and co-author?

    Otherwise, I give her credit for recognizing that two incomes is not always optimal, and I’d love to be a bug on the wall watching her squirm over this in the same way Biden got to squirm over his Hyde Amendment support.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Elspeth says:

    Yes, Bike. Homeschooling was experiencing a sharp increase in the early 2000s, but not in Warren’s circle and neck of the woods.

    I have met liberal and non-religious affiliated homeschoolers more over the last 8-10 years, and they have always been around, but mostly people see homeschooling as a fringe option.

    I too gave her credit for recognizing that two incomes are not always optimal. That’s a pretty big and intellectually honest concession from a progressive feminist politician.


  9. smkoseki says:

    This HS convo makes me feel OLD (we were HS in ’03 but it was pretty fringe; today, HS is so common our public schools actually fund HS options to dump problem students).

    IMO Warren really grasps the power of government subsidies to steal Trump voters, and this book displays her political acumen on economic issues. The dole can be made fairly respectable with free medicare/EBT/student loan forgiveness. Many on the right can’t grok how Warren could easily be the Trump of 2020 if she could just get a personality…


  10. Elspeth says:

    Yes, smkoseki. Homeschooling was still pretty fringe in 2003, although it was in the midst of a pretty rapid expansion as parents began to realize that 1) it wasn’t rocket science, and 2) there are plenty of ways to skin that cat which doesn’t leave Mom with the full weight of sufficiently educating the kids to the point of college readiness.

    I’m intelligent enough IQ wise, but from a logistical standpoint, if I were doing this with no outside support (some of which we pay for), I would’ve thrown in the towel about three years ago.

    I don’t know that her economic offerings are very useful outside the political arena, LOL


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