In a recent piece in the New York Times, the Washington Examiner‘s Helen Andrews argued that the American family is in crisis. “[B]y making it easier for women to pursue success in the workplace,” she wrote, “we have made it harder for them to do anything else.”
She argued that the increase in female labor force participation is breaking down the traditional family structure and creating for more families what Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., calls a “two-income trap.”
This was Andrews’ rationale, writing as a social conservative, for resisting the bipartisan push for paid family-leave policies. But women’s greater engagement in the workforce has expanded, not restricted, women’s choices. And the idea that modern problems can be solved or women’s choices expanded by constraining female sovereignty to the bounds of home and family is simply misguided.
Andrews is right that the structure of the family unit has changed. Various factors, including access to birth control, have pushed the average age of first marriage back by five years and sent marriage rates plummeting to their lowest levels since the 1870s. Meanwhile, advances in household technology have decreased the amount of time women spent doing household work, allowing more time in the labor market.
Several other factors have contributed to the modern trends that Andrews decries, such as the adoption of unilateral divorce laws and declining male wages.
Andrews’ central argument was that the entry of women into the workforce is largely responsible for the increase in the cost of living for middle-class families. The “two-income trap” theory from which Andrews argued points specifically to the fact that the costs of a married, middle class life have risen disproportionately compared to those modern singles. So much of a family’s income is consumed just remaining in the middle class, and much more is consumed just by the higher marginal tax rates and childcare costs immediately involved in having a second income.
It is true that the major expenses associated with two-earner middle-class families — like housing, education, childcare and healthcare — have all risen. However, incomes have also continued to grow, largely due to women’s engagement in the workforce. As per the Congressional Budget Office, middle-class incomes have grown by 46% (after accounting for inflation) since the 1970s. Clearly, having more women in the workforce has helped families feel more economically secure than they would otherwise. If families thought it would be better to raise a kid at home, rather than send her to day care, then a rational choice would be for one parent to stay home. Many families choose to do that, while others continue to have both parents working. Clearly, families are figuring out what is best for them. Why assume then that women working is a problem?
Meanwhile, the number of hours that fathers spend minding household matters and doing chores has doubled. Why discourage such steps toward a more equitable division of labor, which allow women the freedom to choose whether to work or stay home?
Andrews wrote that modern family-leave proposals would pressure even more women into the workforce when they would rather stay at home. And it must be said, only 17% of women with children under age three would prefer to work full-time. But at the same time, only about one third consider staying home to be their ideal situation. That means that a majority of women wish to be in the labor force in some capacity.
Paid family leave will allow mothers to care for young children and then return to work when they feel comfortable. Access to paid leave alleviates the “stress, frustration and cries for national action” that Andrews laments. And for women who choose to stay home after their leave, that is their right. We do not argue against the merit of that choice.
If Andrews’ concern is about traditional family structure, then paid leave is a huge conservative win. More than a quarter of never-married Americans aged 25 to 34 say they remain so because they are not “financially prepared” — not because of any supposed “breakdown of the family” or obsession of modern women with working outside the home. Thus, paid leave, in safeguarding the jobs of women who choose marriage and motherhood, should make them more attractive choices.
That the modern family is changing is not a crisis, but a reality. Marriage is declining amid families are having fewer children later in life. For many people at the bottom of the income distribution, it is true that things like childcare costs have been growing at a faster rate than wages — although this might be changing now. Either way, the work-life balance is as challenging as it ever was.
But the answer is not to discourage women from working. Each family, traditional or not, has the right to decide what is best. Where government has a role, it should be to remove constraints upon working families so they can choose their own affirmative good. Women who want to stay home and raise their children full-time should make the arrangements and do just that. But let’s also give women the best fighting chance to balance work and family, should they choose that path instead.
Andrews may not believe that modern women can “have it all,” as they say — family, work, and happiness — but we challenge that belief. At the very least, we believe they should be given the opportunity to pursue it all.
Aparna Mathur (@aparnamath) is a resident scholar in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where Erin Melly is a research assistant.