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The false nostalgia of the right’s single-income family crusade
Among the openly Big Government “nationalist” wing of the conservative movement, the new talking point and rationalization for government intervention is that the free market is destroying the traditional family. International trade and the rat race of keeping up with the two-income family norm has made it impossible, they say, to support a family on a single income.
Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, who can always be counted on to take the latest nationalist conservative obsession and dial it up to 11, has made this narrative the basis of two sweeping legislative proposals.
His most recent is an attempt to empower the Commerce Department to certify whether a whole range of products have sufficient “domestic content” to be allowed to be sold in the U.S. This would be a massive, complex and arbitrary set of restrictions on trade, but the fantasy is that by bringing back all the old mid-20th century manufacturing jobs, we can bring back the “Leave It to Beaver” lifestyle that came with them. (Ward Cleaver had a white-collar job in something that had vaguely to do with marketing, but never mind.)
Hawley’s other big brainwave, introduced earlier this year, is “a fully refundable tax credit of $12,000 for married parents”—a “fully refundable tax credit” is the new trick for disguising a welfare check as a tax cut—but only “$6,000 for single parents.” This is universal basic income, but for housewives. Hawley promotes the bill to his supporters as a salvo in the culture wars, needed to allow mom to stay home with the kids because “the left is working to undermine the traditional family.”
Neither piece of legislation is likely to be adopted anytime soon, but the bills aren’t meant to be passed. They are “messaging bills” intended to announce the agenda of a new wave of conservatives who want to embrace Big Government as a weapon on their side in the culture wars.
This crusade is rooted in nostalgia for an imagined ideal of the 1950s and the traditional family—the whole Ward and June Cleaver setup: a dad who works and a mom who stays home with the kids in a leafy suburban neighborhood.
Obviously, this is false nostalgia, fed by taking glossy advertisements and old TV shows as representative of how everyone actually lived—as if people looking back at the 1990s were to assume that the notorious apartment from “Friends” was normal and angrily ask why today’s 20-somethings can’t afford 1,500 square feet with a terrace in the West Village. Similarly, it seems that a generation of conservatives grew up watching old television shows on Nick at Nite or TV Land and use this as the baseline for their social and economic expectations.
Ironically, that 1950s life depicted on TV may be more attainable now, but it also may not be what most families actually prefer. But rather than face up to that fact, conservatives are latching onto solutions that accomplish nothing except to feed their culture war obsessions.
Over the past 60 years, the number of households in which only the father works dropped from 70% to 30%, before leveling off. But this means that nearly a third of families are still doing what conservatives claim is impossible. (This share is actually more than a third if you include families in which only the mother works, though I don’t think that’s what conservatives have in mind.)
More to the point, it is relatively easy to be the “Leave It to Beaver” breadwinner if you only want the exact standard of living of, say, 1960—the last year you could turn on your television and watch new episodes of “Father Knows Best,” “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave It to Beaver” all in the same week. But it would have been a small television set, only black and white, and with a “rabbit ear” antenna that would get you all of three channels. And be prepared to downsize everything else.
Our 1960 family might have had a car, but probably only one. They would have had only one telephone too, attached to the wall (and owned by the phone company). They would have had a refrigerator, probably a washing machine, and a vacuum cleaner that June Cleaver could operate while wearing pearls, as legend has it. But these were all very recent acquisitions and not yet universally affordable. The average home would definitely not have had an air conditioner, which was still considered something of a luxury until the 1980s.
Speaking of the average house, it would almost certainly be less than 1,500 square feet. Continuously compiled figures for house sizes are hard to find going that far back, but we can bracket our estimate a bit. The original mass-produced Levittown houses that first drew homeowners out to the suburbs in 1947 were tiny. “The original Levitt house was 750 square feet, with a living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, and ‘expansion’ attic.” By 1973, when most of the available statistics begin, the average size of a new house was 1,660 square feet. By 2015, it was 2,687 square feet. Given the decreasing size of the average family, the number of square feet per person has doubled.
If you watch episodes of those old shows carefully, by the way, you will notice that even in the prosperous, aspirational homes presented on TV, the kitchens were very small, with nary a granite countertop in sight. Plastic laminate was the wave of the future. The coffee, I regret to say, was made at home. In a percolator. Dark days, indeed.
Interestingly, the inflation-adjusted per-square-foot cost of a house has remained relatively flat over all this time, despite the granite countertops. So, if our houses are bigger, it is largely because we have more money to spend on them—and because, when we make more money, we choose to put that into the places where we live.
One Plus One Equals Two
So could the average family afford this downsized, if not to say downscale, lifestyle on a single income? Yes, and better than they could back in the day. Median personal income—that is, the income for a single earner—is up by about 50% over the past 50 years, and that’s after accounting for inflation.
Much of this growth, though, is driven by increased income for black men (who were often legally barred from participating in the prosperity of the 1950s) and for women. That alone should give us pause in declaring how much worse off everyone is. But for men alone, the increase is closer to 20%. So the average man makes more than his 1960 forebear, while the cost of most of the goods he would want to purchase has either gone down or remained steady.
In fact, you can find a number of helpful guides online offering advice on how to live a single-earner lifestyle. The catch is that they all seem to revolve around this one key point: “Be content with less. A one-income family will, by definition, earn less money than a two-income family.”
That’s the problem. It’s not that you can’t live on one income, it’s that you can’t live as well. A while back, conservatives had some fun pushing back against woke fanatics who insisted that you can’t say “2+2=4.” But what many of those same people are complaining about here is that 1+1=2, that you can’t have a two-earner lifestyle with one earner.
The nationalists cite poll numbers about the number of women who would prefer to have more children but feel they can’t afford to. Yet economists also maintain a distinction between preferences stated to a pollster and “revealed preferences,” the things people actually choose given real-world limits and trade-offs.
Let’s put it this way. Even the relatively modest income increases made by the average man over the past 60 years, coupled with technological progress that gives us more for our money, means that men are actually more able to support a wife at home than they used to be. The fact that those wives have instead flooded into the workplace indicates, at least in part, a revealed preference for more work and more income, for bigger houses and cars rather than bigger families. We know what people want because we can observe where they actually devote their time and money.
Everyone would say that they want more kids and a bigger house and a nicer car, etc., but when it comes down to making the actual choices and trade-offs among these things, they may make choices that are different from their declared preferences. They will certainly make choices different from what commentators think they ought to make, and that, perhaps, is the real complaint here.
Everyone wants to think that our ideal is universally popular, that people are itching to live the lifestyle we want, and that only nefarious politicians or Hollywood degenerates or Big Business is preventing them from doing so. Thus, the nationalists want to claim that government policy or economic pressures have been pushing people out of the “traditional family” arrangements of the 1950s, when the evidence is that we have been remaking those arrangements of our own free choice.
The Law of the Instrument
The fallback position for those who want to insist that the average person is worse off is that global trade has made many consumer goods cheaper—your clothes or your flat-screen TV or your video game console—but certain, key “middle class amenities” have gotten more expensive. This is certainly true.
In a well-publicized graph of various household expenses relative to inflation and wage growth, three categories stand out in which prices have increased the most: health care, higher education and housing. All three, you might notice, are among the top targets of repeated government interventions aimed at making them more affordable. As a consequence, they are among the most regulated and subsidized industries.
But notice that the nationalist conservative reforms do nothing to solve these problems. Mucking up supply chains in an attempt to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. won’t keep colleges from raising their tuition rates. As for simply throwing money at the schools, how do you think we got here? In a leading demonstration of the "paradox of subsidies," decades of increasing government support for higher education has mostly been absorbed by lavish campus amenities and bloated administrative staffs, making college less affordable than before.
Much the same has happened with health care, where the Affordable Care Act is but one of many attempts by the government to reduce health care costs. Instead, like all previous attempts, it led to an increase in insurance premiums, offset only by massive government subsidies for the middle class.
As for housing, home prices have reached their most astronomical rate in cities and towns like San Francisco that have the most restrictive regulations and the fiercest NIMBYs. In some towns, if you wanted to downsize into a cozy 1950s bungalow, you wouldn’t be allowed to because it would violate zoning laws mandating minimum house sizes. Yet the nationalist conservatives tend to be fierce defenders of the kind of zoning laws that help drive up housing costs. Why? Because there weren’t any duplexes in the Beaver’s neighborhood.
American Enterprise Institute economist Mark Perry asks, “[In] what areas are government most intrusive? Education and healthcare or manufacturing?” It’s a rhetorical question. Yet, in an effort to increase the number of factory jobs, the nationalist conservatives want to increase government intrusion in manufacturing.
There’s an old adage that has been formalized as the Law of the Instrument: If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you have a particular instrument readily available, this biases you toward seeing that instrument as the solution for every problem. The lesser-known corollary to the Law of the Instrument is that if you really want to use a hammer, you will start making rationalizations for why everything needs to be pounded flat. In this case, the nationalist conservatives have become enamored of the notion that government coercion can be used to solve every problem and all we need is the will to use it—as if this were some bold new idea.
Believe it or not, economic regulations and social engineering have been tried before—often by policymakers and politicians on the left peddling their own, different fantasies—and these policies have turned out to be both unnecessary and counterproductive, achieving none of their objectives except one: to satisfy the lust for power.