Julien Smith has a great video posted on his blog, featuring a lecture by Elizabeth Warren ,a law professor at Harvard Law School, discussing the gradual erosion of the American Middle Class over time. The most important points she makes (to me) are the financial costs and safety net costs families face as a two income family.

When there are two wage earners in the home (mom and dad), the first dollar of that second income is taxed at the higher rate in our graduated rate system. That means if Spouse A earns $65,000 a year, the tax of each additional income dollar brought in by Spouse B bears a 25% tax rate; if that amount brings taxable family income over $128,500, each additional dollar above that will be taxed at 28%, and over $195,850, 33% of each dollar. So for every dollar the second wage earner brings in, the tax rate is higher for them than if they were single.

When the second spouse goes to work, you then have to take into account child care expenses. Assuming there are young children in the household, tuition for preschool alone, and quality day care can be expensive. A few years ago, we paid $7,000 a year for preschool; I cannot imagine that it is any cheaper now. If two kids are in school, that’s $14,000 off the top. So the second wage earner is required to earn over $14,000 just to break even, not to mention all the costs attendant with working, such as commuting costs, eating out more often, dry cleaning, cell phones, etc. So from the very beginning, the second worker is required to have more than a minimum wage job just to cover costs.

Next, when a family has two incomes, they depend on both of those incomes to make ends meet. They don;t have any backup. If someone gets laid off, if a child or family member gets sick, with a partner at home, there’s someone to take care of that person. If no one is at home, one spouse has to leave work to care for the sick person; often it’s mom, and if the illness is serious, she stays out of work until basically she loses her job. Then the family is down an income, and ends become increasingly hard to meet. Enter the mortgage crisis, and escalating housing costs, and you see why so many families are in trouble. When families are more spread out than ever before geographically, there’s not even an option for another relative to step in and help. Our family has developed an extended network of neighbors to help sometimes when these circumstances come up, but this feels like a stop-gap and inadequate solution to a long term problem.

Families are becoming more and more like little fragile island ecosystems, and all it takes in one big storm to sink the whole boat.

I think everyone has to look not only at whether Moms should stay at home with kids, not only as a lifestyle choice, but as an economic choice that has a long term impact on the family and it’s ability to scale during times of trouble as well as in times of plenty. It’s not just a political choice- it’s an economic choice that has real long term impact not only on each individual family unit but culturally.

As a mom of two boys, I have decided that having it all is possible, only if you don’t want it all at the same time. You can have a career and kids, but both being maximally successful may not happen concurrently. The division of limited attention and resources is becoming more serious than ever before, and we all have to make the best choices we can, but with zero safety nets and backup, we are playing a risky game.

The question is, how do we change the dynamic?   How do we make sure families can survive the bumps that life throws us without disintegrating,?  How do we create the “village” that helps sustain families through tough times when blood relatives are not nearby? How can women keep a finger in the career track, yet raise children without feeling like an anachronism? Is being at home a cop-out for professional women, or a luxury?

There are so many questions faced by the “new family” vs “old family” models that  go beyond the family itself.  Traditional volunteer jobs, formerly populated by at home moms are now becoming almost the sole province of retirees.  It seems like the volunteer jobs (around my area, at least) are no longer populated with moms whose kids are in schools, but older men and women who are looking for something to do and give back to the community after retirement.  Can we depend on this group to run all of the volunteer efforts at hospitals, churches,  the United Way, schools and other institutions that have historically relied on volunteer labor?  Sure, the baby boom generation may be aging, but sooner or later, this volunteer labor pool will dry up completely, and then how will businesses and civic organizations manage?

Working part time and on project-based work, both paid and volunteer, has let me try to balance both issues, personally, but  this isn’t always available for everyone.

Is it up to the paid and volunteer workplace to create more flex work to allow women (primarily) to be both parents and workers?    Can we make all of this work when time and money are in tighter supply than ever?

What do you think?