The Two-Income Emancipation
Here is a repost from June 2007 that might be worth revisiting in this season of materialism and uncertain economic times. Many of the couples we have been interviewing for our upcoming book have expressed gratitude for the paradoxical connection between ESP and financial stability.
A wildly popular and provocative book called The Two-Income Trap was published in 2003, and became that year's frightening call to arms for parents. The book outlined how easy it is for middle class families to go broke as they find themselves up to their eyeballs in mortgage debt in order to live in cities with safe neighborhoods and good school districts. The authors, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, argue that one negative effect of women entering the workplace over the past 5 decades is the upramping of housing costs as more and more families compete to buy the best homes. A woman's salary hasn't really gone to bettering her own family's savings; it simply caused her family to spend more. The real problem comes when her family suffers a significant setback - a layoff, a serious illness - and debt quickly mounts.
Warren and Tyagi warn against living the typical two-income lifestyle. While not specifically advocating stay-at-home motherhood for social reasons, they say this lifestyle affords the family a safety net because the non-working mother could go out and get a job if disaster strikes. Until then, having one parent at home forces the family to live on one salary.
I agree with all of the authors' warnings about living without a financial safety net. But I'm puzzled that they do not consider an option besides having one parent completely drop out of the workforce. I think they focus on the one-income solution because it is not the American Way to live below our means. If we earn it, we tend to spend it. We think in terms of 'stuff' and the so-called status and security it brings. So it is unlikely that most two-income couples can devote one salary to savings. Who chooses to live in an apartment their whole lives when they could 'afford' a house? Who chooses to buy a tiny shack when they can afford a 4-bedroom Colonial in an upper-middle-class town with a top-10 school system?
But one very important alternative is equally shared parenting! Here, you have two parents who get to keep their careers but downsize them (such as by reducing their work hours) in order to have time for their children, themselves and each other. They make less money than two full-time, full-bore earners, and so are 'forced' to simplify and budget their money carefully. They may forfeit that 4-bedroom Colonial but won't exactly have to live in abject poverty either. They will probably net more money than a one-income family and their childcare costs will be lower than a typical two-income family's. I'm betting that all their family togetherness is good for their children in ways that the top-10 school system can't touch. I'm also betting that they are happier than their stressed out and bankrupt two-income friends. And if disaster strikes the equally sharing family, either parent can be the safety net by ramping up his/her career (probably more easily than a stay-at-home parent can suddenly go back to work).