Good Schools, expensive houses
by Seth Foreman
Social scientists of widely disparate political viewpoints have documented the strong connection between higher rates of youth suicide, incarceration, drug addiction, sexual activity, and academic failure and the rise in the number of households where parents are absent most of the day. Paradoxically, attitudes toward working motherhood have been completely reversed from those of an earlier generation, when it was considered good for mothers to stay home with young children. As the critic David Gelernter has observed, "except for a few benighted precincts (the Mormon church, parts of the orthodox Jewish community, parts of the Christian Right), society from Left to Right is lined up in force behind the idea of mothers taking jobs."
The disjuncture between what society knows to be bad for children and how people actually behave derives less from any culture war over the role of women than from the economic facts on the ground. Today, seven in ten mothers with children under age six engage in some kind of paid labor outside the home. The majority of these mothers believe that it is economically imperative that they do so.
What would happen, then, if somebody provided evidence that families in which both parents work full-time are economically worse off than single-income families of a generation ago? And what if somebody could prove statistically that two-income families are worse off because of certain social policies that are modifiable? Would large numbers of citizens work toward changes that would make stay-at-home motherhood economically viable for middle-class women?
We might soon find out. A staggeringly powerful and original new book by the mother-daughter team of Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi declares that stay-at-home motherhood may benefit not only children but also the family bank account. According to these two bankruptcy experts, two-income families are indeed worse off than similarly situated single-income families were in the 1970s, and this is so largely because the second incomes of working mothers have pushed the price of homes in decent neighborhoods beyond affordability. Here's how it happened, according to the authors: as urban centers became increasingly unattractive places for families in the '70s, the range of desirable housing options shrank, setting off a "bidding war" for homes in good school districts. The added income of employable mothers allowed families to commit themselves to debt loads that were unimaginable just a generation earlier.
The authors call this predicament the "two-income trap" and conclude that it is thick with irony. The "feminist prescription has been followed to the letter. . . . In a single generation, [women's] gains have been nothing short of extraordinary. But despite all the progress . . . women are actually less secure than they were just twenty-five years ago."
Warren and Tyagi acknowledge the role played by the feminist movement in fueling the exodus of women from their homes, but they don't believe that this was decisive. For most middle-class mothers, they write, the decision to take jobs outside of t