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Elizabeth Warren’s Watered-Down Populism

Too often caught between Randian individualism on one hand and big-government collectivism on the other, America’s working-class parents need a champion.

They might well have had one in Elizabeth Warren, whose 2003 book, The Two-Income Trap, co-authored with her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi, was unafraid to skewer sacred cows. Long a samizdat favorite among socially conservative writers, the book recently got a new dose of attention after being spotlighted on the Right by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and on the Left by Vox’s Matthew Yglesias.

The book’s main takeaway was that two-earner families in the early 2000s seemed to be less, rather than more, financially stable than one-earner families in the 1970s. Whereas stay-at-home moms used to provide families with an implicit safety net, able to enter the workforce if circumstances required, the dramatic rise of the two-earner family had effectively bid up the cost of everyday life. Rather than the additional income giving families more breathing room, they argue, “Mom’s paycheck has been pumped directly into the basic costs of keeping the children in the middle class.”

Warren and Warren Tyagi report that as recently as the late 1970s, a married mother was roughly twice as likely to stay at home with her children than work full-time. But by 2000, those figures had almost reversed. Both parents had been pressed into the workforce to maintain adequate standards of living for their families—the “two-income trap” of the book’s title.

What caused the trap to be sprung? Cornell University economist Francine Blau has helpfully drawn a picture of women’s changing responsiveness to labor market wages during the 20th century. In her work with Laurence Kahn, Blau found that women’s wage elasticities—how responsive their work decisions were to changes in their potential wages—used to be far more heavily driven by their husband’s earning potential or lack thereof (what economists call cross-wage elasticity). Over time, Blau and Kahn found, women’s responsiveness to wages—their own or their husbands—began to fall, and their labor force participation choices began to more closely resemble men’s, providing empirical backing to the story Warren and Warren Tyagi tell.

Increasing opportunity and education were certainly one driver of this trend. In 1960, just 5.8 percent of all women over age 25 had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Today, 41.7 percent of mothers aged 25 and over have a college degree. Many of these women entered careers in which they found fulfillment and meaning, and the opportunity costs, both financially and professionally, of staying home might have been quite high.

But what about the plurality of middle- and working-class moms who weren’t necessarily looking for a career with a path up the corporate ladder? What was pushing them into full-time work for pay, despite consistently telling pollsters they wished they could work less?

The essential point, stressed by Warren and Warren Tyagi, was the extent to which this massive shift was driven by a desire to provide for one’s children. The American Dream has as many interpretations as it does adherents, but a baseline definition would surely include giving your children a better life. Many women in America’s working and middle classes entered the labor force purely to provide the best possible option for their families.

In the search for good neighborhoods and good schools, a bidding war quickly became an arms race. There were “two words so powerful the families would pursue them to the brink of bankruptcy: safety and education.” The authors underplay the extent to which policy had explicitly sought to preserve home values, driven by their use as investment vehicles and retirement accounts, a dynamic covered expertly by William Fischel’s The Homevoter Hypothesis. But their broader point is accurate—rising house prices, aided and abetted by policy choices around land use, have made it harder for families to afford the cost of living in 21st-century America.

Another factor in the springing of the trap? Divorce. In her 2000 book about how feminism had failed women, Danielle Crittenden writes about how fear of dependency, especially in an era of no-fault divorce, had caused women to rank financial independence highly.

These two factors, along with others Warren and Warren Tyagi explore, made it difficult for families to unilaterally disarm without losing their place in the middle class. “Today’s middle-class mother is trapped,” they write. “She can’t afford to work, and she can’t afford to quit.”

A quiet armistice may have been declared in the so-called “mommy wars,” but the underlying pressures haven’t gone away since The Two-Income Trap was published. If anything, they’ve gotten worse.

Warren and Warren Tyagi propose severing the link between housing and school districts through a “well-designed voucher program,” calling the public education system “the heart of the problem.” They correctly note that “schools in middle-class neighborhoods may be labeled ‘public,’” but that parents effectively pay tuition by purchasing a home within a carefully selected school district. Breaking the cartel that ties educational outcomes to zip codes would increase choices for families and open the door to further educational pluralism.

Warren and Warren Tyagi are also unafraid to tell unpopular truths about the futility of additional funding for colleges (identifying “faith in the power of higher education [as] the new secular religion”), housing affordability (“direct subsidies are likely to add more ammunition to the already ruinous bidding wars, ultimately driving home prices even higher”), universal child care (which “would create yet another comparative disadvantage for single-income families trying to compete in the marketplace”), and usurious credit (Warren’s long work on bankruptcy requires deeper treatment than this space allows, but their questioning of our over-reliance on consumer debt deserves a fuller hearing).

Warren’s presidential campaign contains elements of this attempt to make life easier for families, but the shades of her vision of a pro-family economic policy seem paler than they were a decade and a half ago.

Her universal child care plan, for example, seemingly contradicts her prior stated worries about disadvantaging stay-at-home parents. While she explicitly—and wisely—steers clear of a subsidy-based approach, her attempt to “create a network of child care options” does less to directly support families who aren’t looking for formal care. In a sense, Warren would replicate the public school experience for the under-five crowd—if you don’t want to participate, that’s fine, but you’ll bear the cost on your own. A true pro-family populism would seek to increase the choice set for all families, regardless of their work-life situations.

Warren’s housing plan has similarly good intentions, seeking to increase the supply of affordable housing rather than simply trying to subsidize demand. Her competitive education grant would reward municipalities for relaxing restrictive zoning requirements. But while her campaign has yet to release a plan on education, it seems unlikely we’ll see the kind of bold approach to educational choice she espoused in 2003. Populist sympathizers of all ideological stripes should hope I’m proven wrong.

Warren’s attempt at pro-family progressive populism seems honest. If not for certain infamous biographical missteps, her personal story would be one of how America is still a land of opportunity—the daughter of a Oklahoma department store salesman who worked her way to a law degree, a professorship, and a Senate seat. There’s a congruence in her positioning of economic security as a family values issue and the resurgent interest in a pro-worker, pro-family conservative agenda. And unlike so many politicians, her personal experience seems to have instilled an understanding of why so many dual-earner families see work as a means to the end of providing a better life for their children rather than an end in itself.

A politician willing to question the sacred cows of double-income families, more money for schools, and easy credit is the kind of politician this populist moment requires. A candidate willing to call into question an economic model that prioritizes GDP growth over all else would boldly position himself or herself as being on the side of families whose vision of the American Dream involves a better life for their children, yet who are exhausted and hemmed in by costs.

How Warren needs to position her platform to navigate the vicissitudes of a Democratic Party primary will likely not be the best way to address the needs of the modern American family. But in a crowded field, an uncompromising vision of increased choice for families across all dimensions—not just within the public school system, for example, but among all options of education—would be an impressive accomplishment and a way of distinguishing herself from the pack. An explicit defense of parenthood as a social good would be unconventional but welcome.

Still, a marker of how far the conversation around families has shifted from the early 2000s is the extent to which Warren’s and Warren Tyagi’s view of parenthood as something more than an individual “lifestyle choice” would now be viewed as radical, particularly on the Left. “That may be true from the perspective of an individual choosing whether or not to have a child,” they write, “but it isn’t true for society at large. What happens to a nation that rewards the childless and penalizes the parents?”

What indeed. Paging the Elizabeth Warren of 2003—your country needs you.

Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a master’s of public affairs student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

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