2020 brought drastic changes to our everyday lives, many of them driven by the economic crises that followed the arrival of Covid. One of the aforementioned crises, we are told, is a “labor shortage.” Many of the minimum wage jobs, from which people were fired at the pandemic’s outset, now remain unfilled even as the economy stabilizes – ostensibly due to the Biden administration’s long-term extension of unemployment benefits even to able-bodied and employable non-workers. Almost across the political aisle, the sudden dearth of willing laborers has resulted in a carnival of hand-wringing, as political idealogues lament the added burdens that such artificial labor shortages place on the backs of small business owners.
Like it or not, these are valid concerns. However, hidden amidst our current “labor shortage” is another trend – and a commendable one: The return of the single-income household.
The small third party of which I am a member – the American Solidarity Party – touches directly on this in the official party platform. “Our goal,” the platform reads, “is to create conditions which allow single-income families to support themselves with dignity.”
The story of the two-income household is the story of how labor lost nearly all meaningful forms of bargaining power. Between 1960 and 2016, the proportion of dual earner married couples in the United States shot up from 25 percent to 66 percent. On the one hand, this was a good thing: The increase in dual earners was partly the result of the hard-won rights for which the women’s liberation movement had fought. Women were no longer consigned to the domestic sphere, and many were opting to carve out careers. But the abrupt influx of women into the workforce unintentionally shifted the balance of power away from laborers. With roughly double the available workers, labor ceased to be a scarce commodity, and the value of any given individual’s labor plummeted.
As a result, real wages began falling during the 1960s – and they haven’t stopped falling since, as the rise of the two-income household enabled companies pit the increasingly vast pool of available laborers against each other to compete for the now increasingly slim pool of available jobs. With double the laborers desperately competing for the same number of jobs, companies can pay half the wages to get the same amount of work.
Thus, the two-income household rapidly shifted from nicety to necessity. It is no longer merely the egregiously poor who must put multiple family members to work to keep the household afloat. Today, it’s nearly everyone. According to a study on dual income households and bankruptcy by Jonathan Fisher and Nathaniel Johnson from Stanford University, “The rise of the second earner has meant many middle-class households now rely, for better or worse, on two incomes.”
During that same timeframe, the value of a college education began to diminish, housing grew increasingly scarce (and therefore expensive), we have experienced over 40 major economic crises worldwide, and the value of the American dollar has completely transformed. According to Ian Webster, creator of the CPI Inflation Calculator, which a data-based inflation calculator, $10 in 1960 has the spending power of $81.08 in 2016. Conversely, $10 in 2016 had roughly the purchasing power of $1.23 in 1960. We make “more money,” but the cost of living increases faster than wages do, so our “more money” has much less value.
All of this has come together to make it profoundly difficult for most people to support a family on a single income. Because this has been the norm for so long, you might not see any issue with the trends described above. But ask yourself: Is it good for families to be forced to structure their entire lives around having two parents work outside the home in order to live with dignity?
“Hidden amidst our current “labor shortage” is another trend – and a commendable one: The return of the single-income household.”
Of course it isn’t. We do not need to live in lavish wealth, but we should not have to live in panic and fear of crushing financial strain. And it is not acceptable that children should be deprived of both of their parents for the better part of each day simply in order to keep their heads above water. We should endeavor to cultivate a society in which our neighbors can live with dignity.
So, what might “conditions which allow single-income families to support themselves with dignity” look like?
The American Solidarity Party platform provides a few tentative ideas.
“We support policies that encourage the formation and strengthening of labor unions,” it reads. “Efforts by private entities to use public power to prevent union activities or to retaliate against workers who organize for their rights ought to be resisted at every level.”
In other words, those who seek to found or join labor unions must be supported and encouraged to insist that the value of their energy and focus be upheld. We must ask of every work environment: Is human life being respected? How does this company help its employees to cultivate a world outside of work? Are the workers being paid what their energy and focus (labor) are worth?
“Workplace accommodations for parents, including paid parental leave, flexible scheduling, and affordable child care should be available to as many families as possible,” the party platform continues. “Further, no family should be forced to have two full-time incomes just to survive, and thus policies subsidizing childcare by parents staying at home should be enacted.” This attentiveness to the most vulnerable of humans extends to those who struggle for their whole lives, or those who are nearing the natural end of life. “Funding and services should also be provided to encourage families to care for elderly and disabled family members at home without being impoverished by lost income,” the platform reads. “This could include preferential housing options, tax credits, and respite care.” In a culture that has long abandoned multicultural homes as the norm, this encouragement for families to support their aging members speaks to the intrinsic value of each person.
A lot needs to change before the goals of the ASP platform can become our nation’s reality. The adjustment of workers’ wages and rights to reflect their inherent dignity must be fought for. The current mess is partially due to a power imbalance, which can only be solved if workers reclaim their agency and fight against the injustice of corrupt employers. Take this time – a time when companies are begging for workers – and seek out the best paying job in your field.
We must make the support of our communities’ most vulnerable the aim of all other work. Workers must form labor unions, and these unions must keep companies and employers accountable for the actions taken to enhance or impede the worker’s ability to support himself or herself, and any family, in dignity. It’s time to remember why we work, and who we are really working for—not for our bosses, but for our families.
Theresa Bova is studying Graduate Theological Science at Franciscan University of Steubenville.