Did working women make it impossible to support a family on one income?

The thread on “Prom Babies” was sliding off into this question, and I think it’s a good question and wanted to explore it further without encouraging the hijack.

The house I live in was bought new in 1928 by a machine fitter, William Fetner (according to the city directories.) He and his wife May had four young children at home. Of course, she didn’t work. Somehow, not only did they cram four children into this house, which was even smaller back then as a porch has since been closed, they also kept the house through the Depression (and in fact until the mid-60’s) and at in the 1930 census May’s father, age 87, moved in with them. One assumes poor William was then supporting six people in addition to himself on probably, what, a seventh grade education? Might not have been easy, but he and May lived to a ripe old age and the family kept the house for a very long time.

I live here alone. I have a masters’ degree and a professional job. I make a little more than 35,000 a year before taxes. I have the benefit of good insurance through my job that I don’t have to pay a penny for. My car is paid for. There is no way I could even begin to support four children on my paycheck and keep the house, let alone another adult and an elderly person in need of care. No way. Sure, the house is more desirably located now than it was for William and probably more expensive relatively speaking. Indeed, I pay for cable and internet access and a cell phone. But William had a power bill and a water bill - hell, he might have had a car note, too! Probably did, although I’m sure they just had one car.

Often I hear people say that one of the reasons you used to be able to support a family on one income is that you only had one car, a modest house, didn’t have to pay for childcare, etc. Well, I have one paid for car and the same house William did. Blue collar jobs like his have disappeared over the decades, indeed. But you certainly can’t argue that the potential pool of working people has grown since more women work now, can you? Does the decreased individual bargaining power of individual workers lead to lower relative salaries? Recall, old William kept his job through the Depression, when the available pool of workers far outstripped the supply of jobs. Can we say that the same thing happened on a much more gradual but larger scale when women entered the workforce? Is it that we expect more stuff these days, and that life is a lot harder now without, say, two cars? The changing nature of American jobs and effective education inflation (today’s college degree is yesterday’s high school diploma)? Something else?

Did working women make it impossible to support a family on one income?

IMHO, it’s more a matter of working women allowing the American people’s wages to lag as bad as they have without a depression or food riots or something of the sort. If women stayed at home like the “good old days” you’d have a two way class war, instead of the one-way top-down one we have now.

I mentioned this in my post in the other thread. Once mortgage companies had to consider the income of the woman as well as the man to qualify them for a mortgage, people could sell their houses for more–so they did.

Single women could of course buy houses if they had income. Mortgage companies would consider their income because it wasn’t automatically assumed, as it was for a married woman, that they would leave the work force to have babies. Some of them did have babies, but they didn’t leave the work force. This is not to say all mortgage cos. would lend to women.

Would you like to explain how working women have allowed wages to lag?

Simple. These days, one person seldom has to support a family alone, so employers can pay employees less without them unionizing or rioting or whatever out of desperation. Having women work has created the illusion of continued prosperity for the average person, when in fact these days two people have to struggle to support a family as well as one man could have a few decades ago.

I think that’s close to the mark, though not broad enough.

When one wage earner was the norm (though I doubt how widespread that was at any point. The poor have always worked every way they could to keep food on the table) there was greater downward price-pressure to keep thing affordable for a single income family.

By expanding the employment pool (women, minorities in previously white-only jobs, and such) we’ve increased to available value being generated and thereby increased the money supply. Therefore, more dollars are available to chase goods and services. Therefore housing and other products cost more.

This is fine as long as all households have two or more earners. But if a household is outside the norm and has one it’s in the unenviable position of having to compete for housing and other goods (like food!) with other households with a greater ability to pay.

The technical term for this is ‘suckage’.

My thoughts on this is yes 2 income households have basically depressed income levels and increased costs to the point where 2 income households are more and more required.

Also our society, based on monthly payments and services lead to this as well. Now it is common to pay for TV services, internet, cellular, SDMB subscriptions (ok that’s annual), wireless internet (blackberries), onstar, radio services. As well as monthly payments for cars, college. These are all relatively new monthly expenses which require a higher level of steady income (relatively new as in terms of coming about when the 2 income family came about). This is contrasted when you saved up and bought a car when you can afford it, it was a one time payment.

There’s one specific thing that happened in the mid-1980s that has, I believe, had a profound impact on housing prices. I remember this because we were apartment dwellers and thus had spent a fair amount of time scanning the classifieds when moving from one city to another.

The Courts (probably SCOTUS) decreed that it was illegal to discriminate against children in housing.

There was a time when at least half the ads would say “No children”. You never see that now, it’s against the law.

I think, I don’t have proof of this, but I think that that policy was partly a desire to keep the noise (and destruction) to a minimum – and largely a desire to keep “Welfare Mamas” out of the neighborhood. It was a way of maintaining segregation.

When that method was declared illegal, landlords took another tack. And it’s not like they held a giant conference in a ballroom somewhere and decided it, it’s just that the same thought occurred to a lot of people simultaneously.

They raised their prices. They shut the minorities out of the neighborhood economically. Housing costs for renters went up sharply in the mid-1980s. I was renting (and moved in 1985, 1986 and 1988) so I remember it.

That’s why it’s so much more expensive now, compared to 20 years ago.

There’s another thing you’re not considering - - I think women have always made small contributions to the household income. Even in the 1940s, my Grandmother had a part-time job.

Not terribly. A brief period in the 1950s where it was the norm and the economy supported it. The 1930s - where jobs were scarce for everyone. Prior to WWI, our economy was so different its really hard to compare - is a farmer’s wife a farmer? When you consider how many economically disadvantaged people there have always been, there have always been women who worked - maybe not full time, and not often in career jobs.

There have been huge historical economic shifts. When my grandmother was a stay at home mom (which she wasn’t always), they had a single car. Sunday night supper was chicken or ham - thinks like a beef roast seldom hit the table - but lots of cheap sausage and organ meats. Three boys raised in a two bedroom house - and my grandparents were considered middle class - my grandfather had a good post WWII union factory job and this was a normal way of living.

That assumes people are still marrying earlier, and at the same rate, as in previous decades.

In churning Census numbers for the comprehensive plans I write for various cities and towns, the percentage of traditional households – married couples with children – is dropping everywhere, even in the most family-oriented communities. The number of single parent and one-person households is rising.

How did single income households manage to thrive in the past? Some thoughts:

  • Families usually had one vehicle, if they even owned a car to begin with. As a kid in the 1970s, I remember knowing a lot of older women who did not know how to drive. Their husbands drove, and they stayed at home; they had no need to drive.

  • No college expenses.

  • Monthly bills were limited to the mortgage, home and life insurance, electricity, natural gas, basic telephone service, and maybe car payments. No cable/satellite television, cell phone, college loans, Internet/broadband, lawn service, Netflix, and so on. Electric bills were lower because houses didn’t have air conditioning, and people used fewer electric-powered lights and gadgets.

  • Lower food costs; meals prepared from scratch, restaurants being a special occasion rather than an everyday occurrence.

  • Fewer luxury items and gadgets. In the 1920s and 1930s, families had one radio; maybe two if they were upper middle class. In the 1950s, they one television, and maybe two or three radios. Today, single people will have multiple television sets, radios and stereos, computers, MP3 players, cell phones, PDAs, and so on, and replace them much more frequently as technology evolves. Closets of older homes are smaller because wardrobes of the era were much smaller.

  • Repairing possessions rather than throwing them away. When was the last time you heard of anyone darning a sock?

I think it’s possible to be married and have three or four children today, with one middle class income. The trick is to live like someone would have lived in the 1920s, and in a city like Pittsburgh or Toledo, not San Francisco or Boston.

EDIT: partially beaten by kanicbird

The proof of this is in my brother.

He works as a millwright in a steel mill outside of Pittsburgh, and just bought a house in Washington County, historically an area where a lot of steelworking families lived and worked.

His wife is currently taking a break from working to take care of a very young baby, and they just found out they are expecting again.

Now, they bought a modest home on a monster 5 acre lot last year for only about $130,000. The house needs work, but a guy like my brother can do a lot of it himself, and rely on family for the rest. This is very doable on his income, which I would estimate at between $65-$75,000 a year, with the overtime he works. Remember, his job is a bit more skilled than being a laborer, and Pittsburgh has a lower cost of living in general.

They are putting in a pool this summer. Their neighbor is going to use his backhoe to dig it out for him, which will keep the cost down. This is how things are done back home.

I agree with the folks who have said the largest contributor to why folks feel unable to support a family on 1 income is the vastly increased desire for goods and services by the average person/family. As the OP said, somehow they “cram[med]” a family into a home that she occupies by herself.

I’m always surprised - and a little humbled - to see pictures from my parents’ youth, and even my own. The degree of luxury that we have become accustomed to expect as normal is astounding.

One other aspect, however, is the fact that in past generations our economy provided a living wage to a larger number of skilled and unskilled blue collar and office workers. It isn’t just the entry of women into the workforce that has increased competition for less desireable jobs, therefore dropping wages. But the folks who used to have career opportunities as union tradesmen and laborers are now competing for those jobs as manufacturing heads overseas and mechanization and increases in efficiency obsolete many positions.

It is true that often women have worked in “jobs” that wouldn’t show up in the city directory - Mrs. Fetner could have taken in sewing or washing, for example.

But let’s say that, okay, your only bills back then were the mortgage, power bill, water, telephone, insurance, maybe a car loan. My mortgage and homeowner’s insurance comes to a bit over $600 a month (after a large downpayment that I saved for years to scrape up, much as the Fetners may have - prior to moving into my house it looks like they rented, and in the 1920 census they weren’t yet married and lived at their respective parents’ homes.) My power bill is $200 a month, but I have central air and TVs and such - let’s cut it in half and say $100. My insurance is paid for by my job, my car is paid off, the phone bill is $35 and the water, in the summer when I water my plants (and we can assume they had a garden for extra produce) maybe $80. Let’s guess $850 for 1920’s essentials, not counting food, clothing, gas for the car, maybe even animal fodder, etc. He would have had costs I’m not even thinking of, like maybe ice delivery for the icebox. That’s close to half my monthly take home pay, and I have more than twice the education he did in a white collar job.

In other words, something’s more expensive or my salary is lower than his, don’t you think? Maybe I overstated his electrical costs, but he definitely had power costs, etc, and as time went on there would have been more and more appliances to run. Yeah, they probably didn’t eat a whole lot of meat, especially once Grandpa moved in. They probably made great use of leftovers and dibs and dabs of things, didn’t get new clothes until every single child had worn them to threads, etc. (It’s kind of embarrassing to think that I live here alone when they had so many people in this house they must have hung them on nails to sleep - three bedrooms, seven people! My dad had it a whole lot worse out in Middle of Nowhere, GA, near this time though.) So - is it the cost of living or a lowered salary, or both?

Where do you live, though? You have to take into account the fact that economies in areas change over time.

Cities used to be areas of manufacturing, and tended to be much more blue-collar than they are now. Now the blue collar jobs have been pushed to other areas of the country, and cities have become hubs for service and corporate economies. These tend to take a multi-tier structure and shake it out to fewer tiers.

(There’s a thread on Prom Babies? How’d I miss that? What forum?)

My great-grandpa used to pay his doctor in eggs. It was just — different, everything. I don’t think there is a simple answer.
You might want to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn sometime, it’s set before WWI. Interesting to see how people used to live.

Well, I mentioned that in the OP - I’m in Columbia, SC, a place that like most of the US used to have a lot more manufacturing jobs than it does now, particularly in the textile mills. I don’t know where this guy worked, because the census is hard to read on that page. Still, people live here, people work here, people support families here - are you saying that as we become a service economy rather than a manufacturing economy we become poorer?

Also, the “prom babies” thread is in GD, but it’s about having kids right out of high school, not having kids in the bathroom at the prom as I expected when I clicked on it. :slight_smile:

No. I’m saying that as most cities shifted from manufacturing, their populations grew richer and their housing stock became much more expensive. Those cities that delayed or failed this transition (think Pittsburgh) still have low housing costs. Of course, salaries are also low there, so it balances to a degree.

That still doesn’t cover the one-income thing - if we all make more money because we’re not in blue collar jobs, then housing goes up, okay. But if it goes up out of whack with income such that one person can’t support a household anymore then we’re back to why that is, right?

It’s not about wages as much as it is about consumer goods, which have fired up the economy by creating demand and markets and so created to rising costs of goods and services.

And, as others have mentioned, the ordinary home of today has many, many more items considered ‘necessities’ that just didn’t exist before. Before you’d have one TV per house - now every room has a colour TV with TIVO and various types of recording mechanisms attached - and probably a home theatre sound system to boot. Few people bought brand new cars for university - much less high school. People didn’t expect to buy a home the minute they were married and often lived in rental accommodation for years before they could buy a house. And you didn’t buy two dollar Wolfgang Puck tins of soup for lunch; you got Campbell’s Tomato on sale for probably a quarter a tin or ate mom’s homemade.

If this has anything to do with women working, it could be that when some women worked back then, the added money could be used to purchase luxury items and perhaps that’s where the beginnings of the market for extra goodies go its start. This bit’s just a theory which is mine.