Who are working women working for?

In The Two-Income Trap, Elizabeth Warren outlines the argument – bold for a progressive – that the entry of women into the workforce has been an unmitigated disaster for most American families.

At the time (2003), the average worker’s real wages hadn’t meaningfully grown since 1964 – around the time that the women’s movement got serious  and the picture hasn’t got any better in the fifteen years since.

American households bring in a lot more (inflation-adjusted) income today than they did with only one breadwinner – but Warren, a highly regarded scholar in bankruptcy law, notes that this hasn’t made American families any more comfortable or secure.

Foreclosures, bankruptcies, repossessions, and credit card debt have all gone way up; household savings have gone negative, and with no cultural epidemic of Boomer frivolity to conveniently explain it -“certainly nothing that could explain a 255% increase in the foreclosure rate, a 430% increase in the bankruptcy rolls, and a 570% increase in credit card debt”.

Average household productivity has gone up ~400%, real household wages have climbed 43%, and it isn’t all going to hookers and cocaine – at least, no more than it ever did – so where is it going?

Warren’s answer, essentially, is positional goods.

Things like cars and phones and appliances can get cheaper over time, but “a home in the best school district in the city” is a positional good: there’s a static quantity that isn’t going up, so even if everybody became a million dollars richer in real terms, we still couldn’t all live in the best school district in the city.

Partly that causes the two-income-trap: if you’re a one-income family in a bidding war with a two-income family, you’re going to lose – so you’d better become a two-income family. But it’s also an effect of the two-income trap, because when nobody’s home during the day, it becomes a lot more important to secure the right daycare, preschool, and public school, and a home in a safe neighborhood.

So mom’s impulse to protect, nurture, and acculturate her kids – roughly speaking, the “nesting instinct” – gets sublimated into brutal bidding wars, shoveling every cent of surplus into locking down these positional goods for her children. Which means she has to get out and earn more, which makes the positional goods even more important, and so on.

Warren estimates that the average working mom’s $30,000 income breaks down approximately like this:

  • $4,000 more on the house in the expensive neighborhood/school district so that child-rearing can be safely outsourced
  • $4,000 more on the child care that she only needs because she’s working
  • $3,000 more on the second car to drive to work
  • $1,000 more on health insurance
  • $5,000 more on education (preschool + college)
  • $13,000 more on taxes

In other words, the average working mom spends at least two-thirds of her income paying for the privilege to work.

Meanwhile, study after study finds that homemaking moms are better for children at every stage of development, on every axis of child well-being that we’ve ever bothered to examine. Kids raised with mom at home are mentally and physically healthier, less prone to behavioral problems, more academically successful, pick your metric.

And that doesn’t even touch the impact that homemaking mothers have in harder-to-measure matters of culture, faith, and identity.

The prevailing elite narrative is that feminism saved women from a life of stultifying, meaningless drudgery – half the society’s intellectual resources squandered on washing dishes and changing diapers rather than working a million different thrilling and useful professions.

Of course this is ludicrous. The intellectual firepower of women in pre-sexual-revolution America was dedicated primarily to the work of holding civilization together – raising children, nurturing relationships, building communities – and contributing to the family’s support in an ad-hoc way that allowed some flexibility during hardships.

And sure, pre-modern women did a fair amount of drudgery, but A) so did everybody else, and B) most career women today aren’t colonizing Mars or swimming with dolphins. They mostly answer phones, populate spreadsheets, and make copies like everybody else – and all the money goes straight to the daycare so their children can be raised by Disney movies under the supervision of some minimum-wage zookeeper.

Even if you made the case that all of the above is a small price to pay for women to enjoy liberation and fulfillment, you’d be wrong.

Working women still do most of the domestic drudgery that these changes were supposed to liberate them from, and after controlling for socioeconomic status (stay-at-home moms tend to come from lower-SES cultures), levels of self-reported anxiety, depression, and life satisfaction between working moms and stay-at-home moms are indistinguishable.

And that’s only on measures of instantaneous, how-you-feel-right-this-minute happiness. It doesn’t account for the tragic cases of women who spend their best childbearing years climbing the ladder, and then blow every dollar they earned in a panicked (and often unsuccessful) attempt to conceive.

It doesn’t account for bereft, elderly Japanese women turning to petty crime just to have somewhere to go and someone to talk to.

It certainly doesn’t account for the millions of families that have outsourced their child-rearing to public institutions and mass media, only realize what they’ve lost (both in foregone memories, and in suboptimal outcomes for their kids) decades after the choices were made.

So why are women doing this to themselves?

Talking about this kind of thing in the workplace is extremely delicate, so I’ve never gone beyond the facts that my female co-workers have volunteered in casual conversation – but everybody knows something is wrong.

A colleague of mine pays $2,500 a month on childcare, which is most of her take-home pay. She has a good degree from a good school, but her job is not glamorous; she mostly makes PowerPoint charts. She doesn’t love it. She misses her kids, and she’s infuriated by the way they are treated at their (expensive, exclusive) daycare.

As far as I can tell, she sticks with it because somebody told her that this was the only path that would allow her to respect herself – that, were she to stay home and raise her kids, she would be betraying generations of women who fought for her freedom to generate slides for corporate executives at an effective wage of $3/hr.

Who benefits from telling women this story?

Well, it’s pretty clear why government and corporate America are uniformly in favor of working moms. Homemaking labor isn’t part of the formal economy – it can’t be taxed, or leveraged by corporations to depress wages. The value homemakers generate can be enjoyed informally and reciprocally in their community – but it can’t be quantified, monetized, and cycled back into corporate revenue streams.

Losing the taxes generated by women in the workforce would be (at this point) an existential threat to the United States government.

A 100-million-strong army of surplus workers gives corporations tremendous leverage in hiring – enough to reap virtually all the gains from skyrocketing productivity for five decades without paying their people another dime, for example.

And of course, the more people work in the formal economy, the less time and energy they have to meet their own needs, and the easier it is to sell them “solutions” that they didn’t need before.

(In America, this is usually prosaic things like childcare, prepared foods, cleaning services, etc. But in Japan, practically every aspect of romance and sexuality has been commodified for young professionals with no time and plenty of disposable income.)

In short, the people selling you this story are not your friends. They want to use you like any other resource, in whatever way is most profitable. HR wants you to trade your birthright for a pittance, and Marketing wants to sell an inferior imitation back to you – and of course, Uncle Sam wants his cut of both ends.

It’s not a conspiracy; it’s just business. But this is one of those cases where “business” takes on a dark life of its own.

The value of “women’s work” is impossible to quantify, but we can observe the fallout from having lost it.

How much of the hollowness and loneliness of modernity could be avoided if we didn’t have three generations of latchkey kids trying to piece a meaningful life together from stuff they saw in movies and porn? It’s confounded by all sorts of other harmful social phenomena, of course, but Mormons have more than just empirical reasons to believe that it matters.

Still, we can’t lay the blame for all that havoc solely at the feet of feminism. It was all too easy to convince women that homemaking was valueless when it has been so consistently and callously undervalued.

Maybe our great-grandfathers just couldn’t see how much was at stake – couldn’t appreciate the feminine heroism that held their world together. I suppose it’s human nature to feel entitled to what you’ve never had to do without – and a modern failing to undervalue things that can’t be quantified.

But I’m encouraged by what I see in the young Mormon families around me: women entering into marriage and motherhood with a clear-eyed sense of purpose, and men determined not to take that work for granted.

Proverbs 31:10-31

2 Replies to “Who are working women working for?”

  1. God loves His children. By divine design, He has established the family as the primary vehicle through which His children are to find joy in this life and attain exaltation in the next. Whichever fool decided the feminist movement should encourage women to abandon that which makes a woman uniquely feminine did a grave disservice to human flourishing. I thank God that so many women in the Church aspire to the exalted position of Mother. I especially thank God for my wife, who inspires and encourages me to embrace my own fatherly roles – presider, provider, protector. Such women are the guardians of our future. They should be cherished as such.

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