The Middle Class Squeeze and the Burden on Families

American families are under economic strain, but there is a rousing debate among economists over whether workers and families are doing better than a generation ago-- and what that means for shaping economic and social policy. The American Prospect is hosting a lively debate online on the fate of the middle class and how progressives need to tailor their message accordingly. Stephen Rose of Third Way makes the case that the middle class is doing better than many progressives think, while Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute disagrees with Rose, highlighting the stagnation of middle class families incomes in the last generation, even as wealth at the top of the economic ladder exploded. Read the debate and the responses by other commentators.

But here's a point only touched on in the debate: a key reason for gains in income by middle class families in the last generation is the entrance of more women into the workforce and the increase in two-paycheck families. Yet, there's often little discussion of the economic value of the unpaid work women were doing in the home in the past -- and of the increasing costs to families of replacing it with paid child care and takeout meals.

As a recent National Academies Press study emphasized, US government economic data has never developed a consistent measure of the economic value of unpaid labor in the home, so the statistical debate on family income largely ignores the issue. Only in 2003 did the Department of Labor begin a new survey of work in the home to begin trying to grapple with the value of unpaid and unmeasured economic activity in the home.

But for two-paycheck families struggling with child care bills and other costs, the economic value of the unpaid labor done by all the stay-at-home moms of a generation ago is clear-- and economic statistics should catch up. And state policymakers need to step up with more help for working parents, both with policies to promote a more family-friendly workplace that respects time taken off by parents for family needs and a greater commitment to promote affordable, quality child care for families.