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America’s Middle-Class Parents Are Working Harder for Less

Over the past 50 years, middle-class parents have been forced to invest more in their children while being guaranteed less by employers and the government.

Raising children is a labor of love — but it’s still labor. And modern American parents work hard for their children. A recent Cornell University study found a full 75 percent of parents believe the best moms and dads are those who engage in “intensive” parenting styles: facilitating their kid’s extracurricular activities, playing with them at home and taking time for thoughtful, emotional exploration in discipline rather than making unquestionable demands. It’s notable that this kind of parenting is prized despite the fact that 60 percent of two-parent families have both parents working.

But as good as this kind of parenting might be for children, research suggests parents aren’t purely motivated by an instinctual urge to nurture. Anxiety is the driver. As the gap between the haves and have-nots grows, obstacles to financial success and stability — toward grandkids, one might say — have multiplied. Parents are compelled to invest time and money in raising a child even as traditional social supports are withdrawn and returns diminish, because failing to do so risks the family future.

For parents, this means additional stress and a de facto parenting pay cut.

“When we look across countries, economic inequality shaped how high the stakes are in pushing kids toward achievement,” explains Matthias Doepke, Professor of Economics at Northwestern University and co-author of Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids. “Lower inequality countries have parents who are more relaxed, put in less time and just let go. Where the stakes are very high, we have more anxious, pushy parents that really try to give the kids every advantage.”

And make no mistake, American parents are pushing both their kids and themselves to the brink. For dads, time spent with children has grown from 2.5 hours per week in 1965 to 8 hours per week in 2019, according to PEW research. For moms, that time has grown from 10 hours to 14 hours. And while dads do six more hours of housework than they did in 1965, moms do 16 more hours of paid work per week. One would hope that 26 more hours of weekly labor would at least guarantee strong returns — successful kids, financially stable families — but this is not the case. Parenthood has become an expensive gamble.

It wasn’t always like this. During the post-World War II boom, economic inequality in America was roughly on par with economic inequality in modern-day Western Europe. The gap between the highest and lowest earners decreased for nearly three decades between the 1950s and 1970 during what economist Paul Krugman has called the Great Compression.

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During that time, parents took advantage of significant social and financial support. Families prospered, thanks in large part to a huge government investment designed to build and bolster the middle class.

After the war, some 7.6 million American men took advantage of the G.I. Bill to attend a college or trade school or buy a home. Those men entered the workforce with education and training crucial to driving an industrial post-war boom (and without being seen as taking a handout). At the same time, the government fueled the nation’s economic expansion by handing over military innovations to private industry at zero cost. War spending on innovations in computing and structural engineering became an investment in the civilian economy.

But there was direct spending as well. The government share of funding for university research topped 70 percent through the 1960s. And infrastructure expenditures were triple where they currently stand.

For parents, this meant jobs — and stable ones at that. A third of American workers were enrolled in unions. The power of collective bargaining ensured wages were strong enough that a single salary could support a family, ushering in the era of the single-family wage. Corporate agreements with labor ensured that compensation from a 40-hour workweek not only paid the breadwinner but compensated the additional labor and caregiving of mothers in the home.

“Wages were rising in tandem with productivity and they were actually rising faster for the bottom 40 percent of the population than for the top,” explains Stephanie Coontz Director of Research and Public Education at Council on Contemporary Families and author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. “If you had a guy who was not abusive and a committed family man, and a mother who was not very unhappy with her role at home and drinking too much, you had a family that could thrive.” (It’s worth noting that the programs that created so much prosperity also structurally disadvantaged many people of color and minority communities.)

During this period of low economic inequality, public high school education was enough to find high-paying employment in the nation’s factories. And while vocational training helped prepare some students for the workforce, higher education at public universities remained affordable enough for those inclined to pursue careers in white-collar fields.

With production up, wages strong, and oil prices low, homes and cars were almost a given. The suburbs began to crop up across the U.S.and the ease of progress ignited a baby boom. By the time the 1970s rolled around, some 40 percent of American women between the ages of 40 and 44 had given birth to four or more children.

Then, the bottom dropped out. By the late 1970s, inflation caused the federal reserve to increase interests rates, hobbling U.S. production. Between 1981 and 1983 it’s estimated that 21 percent of blue-collar workers experienced a layoff. Unemployment rose to over 10 percent.

Globalization and deregulation added to a decline in manufacturing jobs as a share of U.S. employment. From a postwar high of nearly 40 percent, manufacturing now represents only 10 percent of U.S. jobs. Conversely, jobs in the service industry increased. Often lower-paid jobs in professional and business services, retail, leisure, and hospitality now dominate the employment market. Negotiating got harder. Today, only 10 percent of American workers are now represented by a union.

“We got into this vicious cycle where we took away the regulation,” Coontz explains. We took away the support system. There was an attack on unions that made it possible for working people to claim more of a share of productivity. From the ’70s through the Reagan years on, it was spiraling inequality and every man for himself.”

Between 1976 and 2014, according to data from the Brookings Institute, the top 20 percent of earners saw their income increase 97 percent. Meanwhile, earnings for the middle-class saw moderate income growth of just 40 percent.

Meanwhile, according to data from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the top 90 percent of earners saw house prices that were one 1.9 times greater than their income. By contrast, the typical sales price for a single-family home was 4.2 times greater the median income. Home prices have grown along with the wages of the highest earners, rapidly outpacing wage growth middle-income earners.

“By some measures, median incomes have not gone up at all for the last 30 years. It depends on how you adjust for prices, benefits, and medical care. But take-home wages for right at the middle of the distribution have been more or less the same,” Matthias Doepke says. “There’s not this notion that each generation is better off than the previous one. And so I think that makes this urge for my kids to be among those who are not left behind much more clear.”

With the decline in industrial jobs, a high school graduate could no longer count on a path to solid, union-supported employment in manufacturing. The jobs available to 40 percent of kids seeking employment out of high school were low-paid, insecure service industry jobs with stagnant wage growth. Meanwhile, wage growth for the college-educated accelerated, with those entering the workforce with a four-year degree earning 168 percent the wages of those with only a high school diploma.

“When economic inequality is high, only those who really excel in schooling, who go to the best colleges, get the most remunerative degrees,” Doepke says. “If only those people do well then parents will perceive a lot of very high stakes and be much more stressed.”

Welcome to the age of anxiety.

Part of giving a child an edge is enrolling them in high-quality child care from birth. For infants this can cost average is $27,000 per year. For toddlers and preschoolers, the average cost is $21,000 and $16,000 per year respectively. And when both parents work the cost is a necessity. That’s largely due to the loss of the single-family wage.

The strong organized labor that negotiated for a 40-hour work week that could pay for labor on the job and labor at home has all but vanished. Now, many middle-class families have to work a combined 80 hours a week to keep ahead, and the labor at home, which has increased for both parents, goes unpaid.

There’s also the fact that many parents are forced to decide between working and providing for their family or caring for their kids. Many middle-class parents, facing child care fees that take up to a third of their dual income with their partner, leave the workplace at prime career advancement years because their entire paycheck (or more) would be eaten up by child care alone. This burden falls largely on women, and at the same time, has made middle-class families more vulnerable to financial struggles than ever before, even as they are ostensibly saving money on a huge expense.

This is what’s known as the two-income trap. Some studies show that although dual-income families earn 75 percent more than single-income families of a generation ago, they have 25 percent less money to spend than single-income families. Increases in housing, child care, food, and more are getting more expensive, and as parents work longer, harder hours they still keep coming up short.

“There used to be an idea that the employer’s paycheck had responsibility for what is possible in a family,” explains Jenny Brown, a women’s organizer and author of Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight Over Women’s Work. “Rather than the family wage, we need a social wage … programs that cover everyone, including long paid leave, long vacations, health care, child care, and elder care. We had a system. That system is gone but it wasn’t replaced with another system.”

Other countries have built those new systems. In Sweden, parents receive 16 months of leave paid at 80 percent of their salary. It can be shared between mothers and fathers alike. In Finland, every child receives a cash benefit until they are 17 years old to offset costs. Norway spends about 0.5 percent of its GDP on child care and parents can access that care when their child is as young as 12 months.

“We really don’t have much of a safety net or anything yet in this country, which we’re constantly reminded of,” explains Brown. “Right now we’re being taken advantage of. Many parents have reached their breaking point.”

This is no small wonder. Just consider homework. The load has increased over the years and today’s parents are often forced to invest their time or money in tutoring. SAT coaches charge astronomical fees. Parents pay them, turn around, and contribute to the $5 billion spent annually on organized youth sports.

And, no, these costs aren’t really optional. In a hyper-competitive society in which only a subset of white collar jobs provide an adequate income to raise a family and in which long-term employment is more of a wish than a reasonable expectation, preparing kids requires producing economic gladiators. Ironically, the path toward stability has become unsustainable — or at least draining enough on American parents that the national birth rate is in decline.

“I perceive that in today’s America without going to college, without going to high school it’s just not turning out to be a very good choice,” says Doepke. “Those who don’t go to college are less likely than average to find a partner, to have children, to have that family life that we aspire to. Even health. The stakes are just going up.”

Now Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is part of a class of politicians running for high office on the back of family-friendly programs meant to address the unsustainable labor and financial cost of raising children. Warren and her peers, including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Andrew Yang, want the government to subsidize parenthood again, albeit in the form of tax credits and bonds rather than socialized child-care. And even the Trump administration is floating ideas to make child care more affordable. In a hyper-partisan moment, Republicans and Democrats are stumbling toward consensus on a simple idea: Being a parent is too hard.

“That’s why I’m proposing a bold new Universal Child Care and Early Learning plan,” Warren wrote in a recent post on Medium. “My plan will guarantee high-quality child care and early education for every child in America from birth to school age. It will be free for millions of American families, and affordable for everyone. This is the kind of big, structural change we need to produce an economy that works for everyone.”

Perhaps she’s right, but her plan is already attracting criticism from those that argue the deficit is too high for the American government to expand social welfare programs. “Warren’s proposal would be an expensive way to give parents something they mostly do not want,” argued the editors of the conservative National Review in a recent editorial. “And in the process probably harm the next generation. Rarely does a presidential candidate devise a plan that so perfectly encapsulates her campaign.” Even as parents begin to be treated as a voting bloc, it remains likely that parenthood in the United States will continue to be an exhausting, lonely, and expensive endeavor.

Nostalgia is a trap. It blinds policymakers to the failures of their predecessors and the iniquities of the past. Still, it’s understandable that many American parents — and many Americans generally — feel that the country is moving in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, that sentiment is correlated with voting behavior that all but guarantees continued deregulation and government shrinkage.

The question now is not how to re-create the conditions of the past, but how to provide relief for the millions of parents who are working harder and being guaranteed less by their employers and their government. Parents can’t unionize. Collective bargaining is not in the cards. But they can ask for more and for better — if not for themselves, for their children.