Two Incomes

Ross Douthat, as is his way, brings up an interesting discussion and then hand-waves away the perspectives of what I’m pretty sure are the vast majority of people. Today, it’s about “the two income trap”, the argument/concept that an increase in two-income households has unexpectedly resulted in both less time (due to working) and similar costs, as families have bid up the cost of housing and child care.

I had never heard of this argument before, so that’s cool. And Douthat (who seems like a nice, reasonable man on the podcasts I’ve heard him on) does a good job breaking down different approaches and conclusions from various “pro-family” perspectives who disagree on what all this means. But then…

This is the real “trap” created by two-earner culture. There are many families that want to raise kids on one income, or one income and some part-time work, and instead find themselves pressured, financially and culturally, to keep up with the dual-earning Smith-Joneses next door.

Ross Douthat, NY Times

Eh… is that the real trap? I don’t feel pressured financially or culturally to keep up with my neighbors or my friends. After a pretty wild fifteen years out of college, we’re in the best shape we’ve ever been in (financially) thanks to some controlled risks, career gambles, and more than a few relocations (including one where I needed a new job to give me an advance so I could move… and incredibly, they did it).

And yes, we still feel like it’s not enough. We still make pro-career decisions that, to us, are pro-family. Because the thing that isn’t enough — it’s not our collection of consumer goods, or our “vacations” (LOL), or anything you’d picture a couple of well-off mid-atlantic white people worrying about. For me, it’s mostly the fact that in post-safety-net America, you can never really build enough of a net for a bunch of things that can actually happen to you. High paying jobs can disappear. Physical challenges happen. Family members can suddenly need help — and not the “I’m in a pinch” kind, but the “I’m going to die” kind. The fact that I haven’t been hit with these problems doesn’t mean they don’t exist (close friends and relatives have been kicked right in the teeth by many of them), and now that I have two little kids, the pressure to build a real net is very real. My parents didn’t need me to take care of them, financially, which was a huge boost to me coming into and out of college, and remains a huge advantage today. But they need me to take care of myself and my kids — and as with most people, there is no line in our family budget for “inheritance”. That cavalry ain’t coming if 55-year old Nate checks his 401k and suddenly realizes he spent too much time coaching Little League and not enough at the office.

Now, one way Douthat could be right (and I could be wrong) that would be wonderful would be if all of things I’m worried about simply aren’t issues. No one loses their job, there is never a car accident or hospital visit, some sort of decent, public higher education is available to my two kids that I can afford. But assuming all of these things are going to work out doesn’t seem “conservative” at all, and it’s objectively false that these things don’t happen to people in the aggregate. They do.

Now, the conversation Douthat actually wants to have (and spends most of the article discussing quite eloquently) is about the right way for society to support families, and enable families to form in ways that are most compatible with their hopes, dreams, values, etc.

I think that’s wonderful, and would love to do it. I also have absolutely zero belief that it’s anything other than a very academic, very NYT Opinion Page discussion without major, radical changes to the relationship between employers and employees, as well as the state and its citizens. Because I can tell you, in private sector capitalist thunderdome (where I have spent my entire career), your family’s financial viability is on you. And if you fail there — in 2019 — absolutely no one is coming to help.

Choose wisely.