The Death of Our Family Wage Culture

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that last year, only one-fifth of married couple homes were supported solely by the employment of the husband. The wife was the only employed member of the household in 7.8 percent of married-couple homes (with 6.2 percent supported by other employment combinations, and 18.5 percent having no employed members). The numbers get even more interesting, and troubling, when they are specified to families with children. In 2013, almost 70 percent of all mothers, married and single, with children under the age of eighteen were participants in the labor force (either as employees or as those actively looking for employment). Notice that the presence of children in the home makes it more likely, rather than less, that women will be driven to seek employment outside of the home.

This makes sense, considering the addition expenses that come with raising children. But perhaps the perceived sensibility of this trend deserves a second look, considering the additional time and effort needed, and hopefully desired, by women with children in order to adequately provide for the nurturing, care, and education of their young. While the added expense of children is significant, it seems that the demands in time, energy, and attentiveness are greater yet.

It must be noted that the age of the children is an important factor in the mother’s ability to seek outside employment (a mother of teenagers in school will clearly have more time available for outside employment than a mother of children below school age), but perhaps the age of the children should not have as much influence on the decision as one might initially think. Homeschooling, for instance, is generally found to be a possible option only for families who can afford to have one parent (usually the mother) stay home full time even after children reach school age. If children attend a school outside of the home, stay at home moms have the opportunity to volunteer, perhaps at their child’s school. And while home economics may not require 40 hours a week, homes still require some significant time from someone to make them homey (hence the term “homemaker”), even if the kids are away during the day and, for some of the more mature ones, take care of themselves for the most part.

An obvious factor in the working status of the mother is the active presence of the father in the home. Sadly, one-third of women with children are not supported by the presence of a spouse in the home. This statistic alone would seem to explain the high rates for employment among all mothers. Surprisingly, though, the labor participation rate for all mothers of children under eighteen drops by only about two percent for those who are married and do have a spouse present in the home (from 69.9 percent to 67.8 percent).  This rate is considerably lower than the rate of labor force participation for mothers with other marital statuses (74.2 percent), but only a 6.5 percent differential between these demographics seems meager.

Especially noteworthy is the predominance of full-time employment among mothers. While many families may find it economically prudent, and not excessively burdensome on her or the rest of the family, to have the mother employed outside of the home on a part-time basis. Statistically, though, women in the workforce are three times more likely to be employed full time than part time, and that statistic varies little based on demographics which consider marital status and motherhood. The ratio of full time to part time employment among women stands at around 3 to 1 for various categories (specifically: 2.95 to 1 for all mothers with children under 18, 2.88 to 1 for mothers who are married with a spouse present, 2.6 to 1 for all women with children under six years of age, 3.23 to 1 for all women with children between the ages of 6 and 17, and 2.78 to 1 for all women with no children under the age of 18). All the statistical data shown above seems to indicate that women tend to be employed outside of the home, and tend to be employed full time, regardless of marital status, the presence of children in their homes, or the ages of those children.

In a society that considers cable television, designer clothes, and smart phones to be necessities, these numbers are not particularly surprising. When you add modern egalitarianism and androgyny to the materialistic cultural mindset, the commonality of dual income households is even more predictable. What is surprising, though, is how incompatible these numbers seem to be with traditional Christian values, namely those espoused by the Catholic Church. In his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno Pius XI states:

Mothers, concentrating on household duties, should work primarily in the home or in its immediate vicinity. It is an intolerable abuse, and to be abolished at all cost, for mothers on account of the father’s low wage to be forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the home to the neglect of their proper cares and duties, especially the training of children. Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately (para. 71).

Ironically, the status quo of American family economics, considered to be progress for women by our modern society, was considered to be “intolerable abuse” of them by our Holy Father. It does not seem that most of us, either as employers or as earners and stewards of wages, have made “every effort” to change our situation. Fifty years later, Pope John Paul II elaborated on this ideal. According to his encyclical Laborem Exercens:

Experience confirms that there must be a social re-evaluation of the mother’s role…. It will redound to the credit of society to make it possible for a mother—without inhibiting her freedom, without psychological or practical discrimination, and without penalizing her as compared with other women—to devote herself to taking care of her children and educating them in accordance with their needs, which vary with age. Having to abandon these tasks in order to take up paid work outside the home is wrong from the point of view of the good of society and of the family when it contradicts or hinders these primary goals of the mission of a mother (para. 19).

John Paul identified the risk for women to lose something of themselves when impelled, either by desire or necessity, to partially fulfill what had traditionally been consider the exclusive male role as material provider for the family. Addressing the trend of mothers entering the workforce, fueled in part by the popular momentum of liberal feminism, in his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem John Paul warned “In the name of liberation from male domination, women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine originality. There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not reach fulfilment, but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness.” Deforming and losing their essential richness, in these words of Pope John Paul, seem to fit the criteria for designation as “intolerable abuse,” in the words of Pope Pius.

The inability of a woman to fulfill her special feminine role can place the family at risk of double injury, according to this insight, considering its negative effect upon the ability of the father to fulfill his masculine role. John Paul points out that the father, though called upon to exercise a position of leadership and authority within his family, does so in part by following the example of the mother. “The man, even with all his sharing in parenthood,” said John Paul, “always remains outside the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own fatherhood from the mother.” In this sense, it is the duty of the father to provide adequately for his family to ensure his wife’s ability to fully express her feminine genius, not just for the sake of her maternity, but also for his own paternity.

If the dominance of dual income families was based solely on greed and the desire for luxury, it would be a simple, if not easy, fix. Unfortunately, several complex factors have led to an economic situation in which even those who would prefer to rely on the support of a single income will likely have considerable difficulty doing so, in part due to the effect of social trends and government policies. In addition to a certain level of frugality, for a family to subsist upon a single income, that income must be sufficient for all to meet all current and future needs of the family. The problem is, employers no longer hold to the traditional “family wage” concept, but instead offer wages in accordance with market conditions. In other words, employers tend to pay only what they need to pay to be competitive with other employers. Theoretically, supply and demand will dictate those wages for any given occupation. The problem is, we are experiencing a supply and demand problem, and have been for quite some time. Three contemporary causes come to mind:

Gender Competition
Historian Allan Carlson links the erosion of the natural family unit with the loss of the “family wage culture” that had made the baby boom of the 1950s possible. Carlson suggests that the movement towards a family wage economy had been initiated in the 1840s by social reformers and Catholic theorists, whose “proudest achievement was the liberation of married women from toil in the factories, so that they might care for the home and children and so prevent the full industrialization of human life.” In order to achieve this sort of culture, Carlson notes, wage discrimination against women was required. Working women were paid an “individual wage,” with the assumption that they were not supporting dependents and were merely supplementing their husband’s wages. This family wage culture was able to thrive even after 1942 wartime regulations prohibited wage discrimination against women. According to Carlson, “equal pay for equal work was basically achieved by 1945. But for another 25 years, job segregation by gender more than compensated for this. Women workers crowded into ‘women’s jobs’ that invariably paid less than ‘men’s jobs,’ and the so-called wage gap between men and women actually grew.” This system, which had a direct effect on higher marriage and birth rates, would finally collapse in the wake of further policy changes. Carlson asserts “the addition, as an afterthought, of the word sex to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, became by 1970 the chief tool in eliminating job segregation by gender, so ending the nation’s informal family wage system.”

Delayed Retirement
Another cause of our supply/demand problem is that too many wage earning jobs, which are needed by some (particularly the young and/or those who possess lesser skills/qualifications) are currently held by those who, ideally, would no longer need them. The stock market decline of 2007, which caused many previously solid pension plans to appear less than sufficient, and widespread layoffs of near-retirement (but not yet retirement-ready) workers caused by economic recession (not to mention corporate greed), have caused many to remain in the workforce, either holding on to wage earning jobs or looking for them.

This signifies the existence not only of the specific issues already mentioned, but also some larger issues when it comes to the way we pursue our income. In their Capitalist Manifesto, Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler point out that a family wage system will become unsustainable in an industrial economy when households fail to keep pace with the widening gap between the value of labor and the value of creative capital (intellectual and material). According to them, “As the methods by which an economy produces its wealth call for proportionately more capital and less labor, the opportunities to participate in the production of wealth increasingly rest on individual ownership of capital and decreasingly on individual ownership of labor.” Ideally, they suggest, “men will from the very beginning of their lives prepare themselves for eventually turning to humanly better forms of employment; and as they gradually acquire capital estates, they will also gradually shift their interests from one form of employment to another. When at last their capital estates become large enough to provide a viable family income, it is to be hoped that they will hasten the day when they turn all their energies and talents to the performance of the liberal tasks of leisure.” In other words, in order for a family wage culture to survive, families must move from wage earning to capital earning (which can come from ownership of property or other investments). If this process is carried out as they suggest, more suitable jobs will be available for those who need them and families, as well as society, will be enriched.

While this is a multifaceted and difficult subject to approach from the perspective of morality and social justice, it has clearly observable implications in the economic sphere. Recent reports suggest that immigration rates have resulted in considerable wage reduction in the U.S., particularly in lower-skilled professions. In his article “On Immigration: It’s Time to Defend Americans,” Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) cites data “showing that since 2000 all of the net gain in the number of working-age (16 to 65) people holding a job has gone to immigrants,” and claims this surplus of labor is partly responsible for the reduction of the median U.S. household income by almost $6,000 from 2007 to 2012. While there were certainly other factors at work during these years, Sessions asserts that immigration played no small role.

Perhaps the modern confusion about the definition of marriage, the essence of family, the responsible role of government in the economy, and even the nature of happiness in general, have all contributed to our contemporary views on household economics. In our attempt to provide everybody with what they think they want, be it a career of a certain sort or just a convenience of a certain sort, perhaps we have deprived one another of what we truly desire. In What’s Wrong with the World, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I do not deny that women have been wronged and even tortured; but I doubt if they were ever tortured so much as they are tortured now by the absurd modern attempt to make them domestic empresses and competitive clerks at the same time.” In the same vein, John Senior suggested in The Restoration of Christian Culture that “Woman’s place is in the home not because some chauvinist put her there, but because there is a law of gravity in human nature, as there is in physics, by which we seek our happiness at the center.”

Each married couple must discern for themselves the most prudent and proper way to provide for their families; financially, spiritually, socially, and emotionally. Many families may very well be best suited by having both parents work outside of the home. But something tells me that many more families will be even better suited by making the difficult choices and efforts required to live, and even thrive, with only one parent engaged in outside employment. The job of our policymakers and employers, then, is to encourage and provide the opportunity for a society made up of cooperative families supported by breadwinners to emerge.


Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

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