Basic Necessities or Escalating Lifestyles?
When most of the working people I know in the San Francisco Bay Area talk about the need for two incomes to afford a home, they’re making a fairly accurate calculation. (And even then, the two incomes have to be well above the national median.) But living in this area is a conscious lifestyle choice, even though for some the desire to live in a socially vibrant, picturesque, anything-goes community like San Francisco may be so strong that no other options are seriously entertained—the decision feels more like a preordained lifestyle verdict than a choice.
Still, it is a choice that many people forego. When faced with the costs and the implications for family life, they move to Oregon, Texas, or someplace else where the price of a San Francisco studio condominium buys a large family home. Between 1995 and 2000, more than 200,000 people migrated out of San Francisco, a large proportion of whom were families with young children.2 A 2005 survey reported that 45 percent of families with children under age six expected to leave the city within the next three years.3 Since 2001 the net outflow of people from California has increased fivefold in response to soaring house prices. Many are settling in less glamorous locales. The population transfer from California to Missouri, for example, more than tripled between 2001 and 2004. Melanie and Nathaniel Fischer and their three children were among the 2,200 California transplants to Missouri in 2004. They traded their home in California for a five-bedroom house that was nearly twice as large, and they purchased a twenty-one-foot boat with the money left over. “You have to give up things,” Mrs. Fischer explained, “to get things.” One of the things she got from the lower cost of living in Missouri was the opportunity to quit her job and stay home with her three children.4
Couples with young children who leave the California sun to purchase family homes elsewhere are not the norm, however, and they are probably not low income. What about poor people? Are two-earner households required for economic survival in low-income families with children? Is it necessary for both parents to work continuously during the early years of childrearing? Even among low-income families, much—if not most—of the requirement for a second income, which is attributed to economic necessity, is less a matter of obtaining essential goods and services than commonly recognized.
In the United States the basic point of reference for any discussion of low-income families is the poverty index formulated by the labor economist Mollie Orshansky in 1963. Or – shansky’s remarkably simple measure took the cost of the Department of Agriculture’s Economy Food Plan for different household sizes and multiplied these figures by three, based on the fact that families spent, on average, about one-third of their income on food.5 Since then, the poverty threshold has been adjusted slightly from year to year according to changes in the Consumer Price Index. In 2006, for example, the poverty line was $20,000 for a family of four composed of two adults and two children and $13,200 for a family of two. The Census Bureau estimated a national poverty rate of 12.6 percent in 2005.
Although the official measure of poverty is concrete, plausible, and convenient to use, many questions have been raised about how accurately it reflects the number of low-income people and their material well-being. Those who argue that the index overestimates the level of poverty point out that the calculation does not include other forms of income, such as the cash value of food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid, energy assistance, school breakfast and lunch programs, the Earned Income Tax Credit, home equity (when converted to annuity), and income from cohabitants.6 Others claim that the index underestimates the conditions of poverty because it overlooks additional factors that should be taken into account, such as child care and other costs of working, changing perceptions of basic necessities, geographical differences in costs of living, and a sense of relative deprivation that defies measurement by an absolute standard of adequacy. The technical debate on defining poverty includes many valid points by experts on all sides of the issue.7 While the debate continues to refine the issues and challenge professional orthodoxy, the established index remains the basic reference for estimating (however roughly) the breadth and depth of material privation in the United States.
A glaring problem with the current measure from the layperson’s perspective is that 46 percent of poor households own their own homes, which on average are three-bedroom structures with one-and-a-half baths, a porch or patio, and a garage—a picture that does not correspond with the popular conception of poverty. As for actual living space, the average number of square feet per person in poor households is considerably less than in nonpoor households; however, poor households in the United States averaged 10 percent more square feet per person than the average European household (from among the fifteen countries that were original members of the European Union). In 2001, the median value of houses owned by the poor was $86,000, which amounts to 70 percent of the median value of all homes in the United States.8
It should be pointed out that home ownership by households categorized as poor in the United States is highly concentrated among the low-income elderly, whose decisions regarding childrearing and patterns of labor-force participation were made decades ago. But even when we take into account the circumstances of the entire poverty population, poor households appear to have a degree of material consumption that defies efforts to explain the decline in childrearing and family size that has taken place since the 1970s as a result of economic necessity. For example, households living below the poverty line in 2001 enjoyed a level of material convenience similar to that of the general population in 1971 (Table 2). Yet the U. S. fertility rate in 1971 was 2.28, compared to 2.03 in 2001.
Although low-income households possess more conveniences of modern life than ever before, a 2006 survey conducted
Table 2. Comparison of Material Conveniences in the United States: Poor Households in 2001 vs. All Households in 1971
Sources: W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm, “By Our Own Bootstraps: Economic Opportunity and the Dynamics of Income Distribution,” Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas Annual Report (1995), 22; Robert Rector and Kirk Johnson, “Understanding Poverty in America,” Backgrounder, January 5, 2004.
*Data for 1994
by the Pew Research Center found that over the last ten years many of these products, such as dishwashers, air conditioners, and cable television, had shifted in the public’s perception from luxuries to necessities.9 In maintaining that the average material condition of low-income people is better today than it was in 1970, my point here is not to exalt the life circumstances of the poor. Living on or near the poverty line today is, at best, a disagreeable state of affairs. And significant material discomforts are suffered by a relatively small percentage, but nevertheless large number, of people living in abject poverty—far below the established threshold. Still, it is clear that in modern times, “low income” is not synonymous with a lack of basic necessities that would entirely dissuade people from having children or require continuous employment by both parents for survival. Despite the many appliances and gadgets the public now considers impossible to live without, it is hard to argue that life was tougher in the 1970s, when proportionately more women had more children than today. Currently, even among the poorest of the poor—those people receiving assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program— families have an average of two children.
Let us turn for a moment to the European Union countries, where the female labor-force participation rate is high and the average fertility rate is considerably lower than that of the United States, as are the poverty rates as defined by these countries (though these measures too must be taken with a grain of salt).10 In 1942, looking beyond the struggles of World War II, English economist Lord Beveridge posed the great battles to come as the fight against want, disease, squalor, ignorance, and idleness.11 Taking a measure of the European condition in 2006, Jens Alber concludes that these problems have been overcome. He summarizes the four new challenges facing Europe as children, care, careers, and college education.12
The low fertility rate in Europe is not explained by financial duress. Data on thirteen European Union countries show that the decline in motherhood and family life correlates with a rise in leisurely pursuits. Between 1987 and 1996 a proportional decline of 3 percent in the average fertility rate was accompanied by a proportional increase of more than 10 percent in the average amount of money spent on entertainment, recreation, and cultural activities.13 As people had fewer children, discretionary spending on pleasurable interests increased.
However one interprets the data on the United States and Europe, they do not argue that either lower fertility rates or the increasing proportion of two-earner households are closely associated with the inability to otherwise afford the basic necessities. Assuming a family is not impoverished to start with, the choice to have a two-earner household with fewer than two children appears to be based on preferences for the immediate and tangible gratifications of material consumption over the distant and transcendental satisfactions of creating and nurturing a young life. But even this trade-off does not entirely capture the essential motivations behind the declining role of motherhood, since the actual value derived from a second earner in many families with children is not as large as it may seem, particularly during the early years of childrearing.
Although a second income may lift the heads of an impoverished family above the waterline, the added value of a second income in working – and middle-class families is often marginal, especially for those in jobs on the bottom half of the income ladder with a child or two of preschool age. There is considerable shrinkage in the real consumption value of the second income once the value of lost household production (discussed in Chapter 3) is taken into account, along with the costs of work-related expenses and increased taxes.14
The costs of child care vary widely depending on the age of the child and the quality of the care. High-quality care for preschoolers is expensive. There is no getting around the fact that caring for young children is a labor-intensive operation. It can benefit from economies of scale, but only within strict limits. One adult simply does not have enough eyes, arms, or physical stamina to provide eight hours of quality care for six two-to-three-year-olds. According to the experts, current standards for quality day care call for staff with at least two years of college, a background in early childhood development, and CPR training. The recommended ratio of staff to children for high quality care is around 1:4 for children up to three years old.15 Imagine, then, a modest eight-child center in which two qualified caregivers were each paid $25,000 a year including benefits, and the combined costs of insurance, rent, utilities, equipment, and food amounted to another $30,000. Keep in mind that this is a bare-bones operation with no nurses, special cooks, or fancy quarters, and that it pays a salary of slightly more than ten dollars per hour (for adults with two years of college).16 Simple arithmetic suggests that it would cost upward of $10,000 per child to run such a place. Most child care in the United States is less expensive than this—but parents get the quality of care they purchase, and children pay the price.
At $10,000 per child, the cost of day-care service comes to about 45 percent of the median earnings for all women who worked (both full – and part-time) in 2003 and 33 percent of the median earnings for those who worked full-time.17 The amount of the paycheck left in hand is even further reduced by work-related expenses and taxes. A detailed analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), established by the advanced industrialized countries, estimates that in the United States 63 percent of a second earner’s salary from a full-time, low-wage job (paying 67 percent of the average production worker’s earnings) is consumed by child-care expenses, taxes, and reduced benefits.18 This percentage of reduction was similar to the combined average for twenty-eight advanced industrialized countries.
After subtracting child care, taxes, and work-related costs, what remains of a mother’s income would not substantially
enhance the material lifestyles of many two-earner families with young children in which the woman made less than the $22,000 median (or the $30,000 median for those working full-time year-round) in 2003. Moreover, when the outlays required to compensate for the reduced level of household production, the increased working hours, and the heightened stress of two-earner families are factored into the equation, it is hard to imagine that the second income lends much of a boost to the overall quality of family life. But this assessment applies mostly to workers at or below the median income. Certainly the additional income from the 3.5 percent of women who earned $75,000 or more in 2003 would increase their family’s material comforts considerably beyond the small bump in consumption generated by a second income from young mothers with low-to-middle wages.
The decline in family size and the shift in women’s labor from the household to the market between 1960 and 2000 was a sweeping social change that cannot be ascribed to the press of economic necessity. (This general assessment should not be taken as a denial that there are still many women in dire need, particularly single mothers, who must work.) Although the desire for increased material comforts may have pulled women away from the traditional role of motherhood, in many two – earner families with young children the net financial gain is slim and the quality of family life is diminished. For some women, however, the reverse is true. There are always winners and losers with any large-scale social change. And it is usually the winners, in this case an intellectual elite of well-paid professional women, who are among the strongest advocates of change. Between the 1960s and the mid-1990s, these women helped to create and reinforce new expectations about modern life, self-fulfillment, and the joys of work outside the home.