Enter the characters you see below Sorry, we just need to make sure you’re not a robot. Looking for news you can trust? Middle-class parents are stretched thin these days. Between health care costs, child care hassles, looking for a home in a good district, and paying for college, raising a child is becoming increasingly expensive. Little wonder, then, that married couples with children are more than twice as likely to file for bankruptcy as their childless how Makes Trap Nation Money, and 75 percent more likely to have their homes foreclosed.
And the danger is growing worse by the year: In 2002 1. In the face of such hardships, many families have sent both parents into the workforce to try to make ends meet. After all, surely if both parents work full-time it shouldn’t be hard to ensure financial security, right? Wrong, say authors Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi, in their book, The Two Income Trap. Two-income families are almost always worse off than their single-income counterparts were a generation ago, even though they pull in 75 percent more in income.
Can you explain what the two-income trap is? Amelia Tyagi: More and more families today are sending both parents into the workforce — t’s become the norm, it’s what we now expect. The overwhelming majority of us do it because we think it will make our families more secure. But that’s not how things have worked out. By the end of this decade, one in seven families with children will go bankrupt.
Having a child is now the single best predictor of bankruptcy, and this holds true even for families with two incomes. So we looked at the data for two-income families today earning an average income. What we found was that, while those families certainly make more money than a one-income family did a generation ago, by the time they pay for the basics — an average home, a health insurance policy, a second car to get Mom to work, child care, and taxes — that family actually has less money left over at the end of the month to show for it. We tend to assume with two incomes you’re doubly secure. In the past, it seems like a stay-at-home mom could act as an insurance policy for the family if the dad was laid off or whatnot.
But today two-income families have nothing to fall back on in the event of a disaster. Or if Grandma broke a hip, she could step in and provide care without costing the family financially. Some conservative commentators might see this as evidence that the mother should return home. Of course, the notion that mothers are all going to run pell-mell back to the hearth and turn back the clock to 1950 is absurd. But that aside, a big part of the two-income trap is that families have basically bid up the cost of living. A generation ago, an average family could buy an average home on one income. Today you can’t do that in three-quarters of American cities. A lot of that has to do with public schools. Average mortgage expenses have gone 70 times faster than the average father’s income, and the only way families are keeping up is by bringing in two incomes.
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Of course that’s where you see the trap. If families were simply sending Mom into the workforce and using that money to build their savings, or to have more fun, or to go on more vacations, you wouldn’t see the same kind of financial trap. If Mom or Dad got laid off, heck, they’d stop going on vacation. Well, we’ll just stop paying the mortgage for awhile.
Even so, there still seems to be this perception that families are only going bankrupt because they’re splurging on frivolities. If you earn a decent income, and you’re in trouble financially, it must be because you’re blowing all your money at the Gap, and TGIF. The myth is so powerful, it almost seems like heresy to question it. But when we actually looked into the data on what real families actually spend, it’s just not true. The point is that families today are spending their money no more foolishly than their parents did.
And yet they’re five times more likely to go bankrupt, and three times more likely to lose their homes. These are the kind of bills that you can’t just trim around the edges in the event of a downturn. Now you also found that single mothers, and single divorced mothers especially, have the highest risk of bankruptcy. AT: Well, everybody knows that single mothers have it rough financially. But if you ask people what the solutions are, you will nearly always hear that we should increase child support, and that single mothers should make higher incomes. The problem is that’s exactly what America has been doing for the past 30 years.
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Child support enforcement is not perfect but it’s better than ever. Child support awards are more consistent and they’re higher. We found that this has nothing to do with child support. The problem is that two-income married couples are in trouble financially, and if they’re not making it, then the single mom doesn’t have a prayer. It used to be that when a family got divorced, the stay-at-home mother went back into the workforce and brought in a new income.
Plus, they probably had a mortgage they could afford, as well as some money in the bank and no credit card debt. Let’s talk about some of the solutions you propose in your book to help alleviate the two-income trap. You mention that the housing crunch and unaffordable mortgages could be dealt with through policies that promote public school choice—basically, offering vouchers to families so that they can send their kids to schools anywhere in a district. The point here is to give every child access to good public schools regardless of where they live. Today if a parent wants to choose where their kid goes to school, they can either fork over a whole bunch of money in tuition for private school or they can buy a new house near the school of their choice. And it’s driving up property prices in certain key areas.
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When you stop and think about it, that’s kind of ridiculous. So we’re suggesting that you need to decouple schools from home location — a zip code should not automatically equal what public school you go to. Ultimately this would give families more choices — they could live anywhere in a city and not worry as much about getting a good education for their kids. You also argue that skyrocketing college costs are putting families in a pinch. And one of the solutions you mention is a tuition freeze for state universities, so that families can start affording to send their kids to college once again. College tuition has been increasing at nearly three times the rate of inflation.
In the past generation, college tuition has doubled, adjusted for inflation. I don’t think more student loans is the answer — kids are already drowning in student loans. So we need to start thinking about other ways to make college more affordable. What we found is that colleges often increase tuition just because they can. When you look at what universities are spending money on, they’re spending far more on sports programs, far more on administrative overhead, far more on food services. Those are all nice, to be sure, but not when the college tuition goes out of reach of middle-class families.
So a tuition freeze would force universities to stop and think about what they really need to offer, what’s really necessary. You have a whole bunch of solutions and policy recommendations in your book, but one interesting thing about all this is that you’re always looking at how policies would affect the way policies compete with each other. So, for instance, you note that free child care would actually put stay-at-home moms at a disadvantage. So our recommendation is that subsidized child-care should be offered in tandem with some sort of subsidy for stay-at-home parents, in the hopes that that would offset the competition between families. Otherwise, you’re providing even more financial pressure on one-income families, and forcing those remaining stay-at-home mothers to enter the workplace in order to keep up with everyone else. Another proposal we offer is universal preschool — basically we would extend public education to start at age 3 or 4 instead of age 5.
There’s not an expert out there who thinks that kids don’t need to go to their first day of school until age 5. But that’s another policy proposal that benefits stay-at-home parents and working parents alike. One of the big lessons from this book seems to be that if you want to look at how families are doing in the US, you can’t just look at employment. Why do you think bankruptcy statistics don’t really garner a lot of attention?
AT: Absolutely, that’s a huge lesson. In general, I think income statistics don’t garner much attention. It seems that incomes have dropped in the past couple of years and we haven’t heard so much about that. It seems like the stock market and employment numbers always gets the attention. And that seems to miss the point.
As we interviewed people for the book, we kept hearing people make the assumption that bankruptcy is merely a side effect of bad economy. There also seems to be this idea out there that debtors are immoral, or that they’re gaming the bankruptcy courts in order to get out of having made bad choices, so we shouldn’t worry too much about them. AT: Yeah, there’s this great myth that back in the some murky past, people paid their bills no matter what. Whereas today, people say, our morals are willy-nilly and we run to the bankruptcy court at the first sign of trouble. But when we look into real data on the real people going bankrupt, there’s no evidence for this myth. Oh, and then the other half of the myth is that people just have no shame, that bankruptcy has lost its stigma, which again, it held in some murky past. But more than 80 percent of people who filed for bankruptcy said they were deeply ashamed, and didn’t even tell their family members or their coworkers or their neighbors—even when the reason they filed for bankruptcy most anyone would sympathize with.