July 24, 2017

The Challenge of Avoiding Downward Mobility from the Upper Middle-Class

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

During a conversation with an acquaintance, a man in his 60s who has never been married and to my knowledge has no children, said that he didn’t think that mothers should have jobs if they were married and their husbands made a sufficient amount of income.

Specifically, he was talking about one of his co-workers, a married woman with teenaged kids who often discusses her family’s financial difficulties at work. My acquaintance didn’t understand why the family of four didn’t just move into a small apartment farther away from their office. He suggested that if one’s husband earns a good living, then a wife should stay home with the kids. He also presumed that her husband, a marketing manager, must make in “the high six figures,” so he couldn’t understand how they could possibly have any financial problems at all.

I thought that my acquaintance likely overestimated the husband’s salary, conflating being a manager with being an executive. But many people might wonder how a family that likely has a six-figure income could be just getting by and needs two earners. The economic realities of raising a family in the twenty-first century, versus the middle of the twentieth century when my acquaintance grew up have changed.

Avoiding downward mobility—and trying to provide opportunities for their children to avoid downward mobility—can be increasingly difficult, even for people who have achieved a good standard of living.

Being polite, I didn’t want to turn our conversation into a lecture, so I changed the subject. But I suspect there are many people who feel the same way, perhaps without knowing why two-income households are so common in the twenty-first century. My acquaintance seemed to suggest that these choices are about greed and the desire to buy more stuff, but that’s not necessarily the case.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2015, nearly 70 percent of mothers with children under 18 worked in the paid labor force, compared with about 47 percent in 1975. These changes are about more than personal preference, but instead are the result of significant economic and social changes. Most of these mothers are in the labor force because they need the income to support themselves and their families.

While we don’t know the actual circumstances of my acquaintance’s co-worker, we can use some data tools to help us understand why she and so many families have two working parents; even many mothers with husbands who have healthy incomes are in the paid labor force. (And I use the term “paid labor force” rather than “working mothers” because being a mother is work, regardless of whether one earns a paycheck or not.) It is also important to consider that a woman’s current salary and earning potential may be equal to or higher than her male partner’s.

We can find the median household income if we know the zip code where a family lives. In the area where my acquaintance works, the median household income is pretty high, at $115,629, which is about double the median income of the county and the nation as a whole. While we can’t know for sure what his co-worker’s husband earns, we can estimate using data on income and occupation from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which lists marketing managers’ average salary at $144,140. A very nice salary indeed, albeit not high six figures as he presumed.

But the cost of housing is extremely high in this area. The median home price in that zip code has increased by about one million dollars in the past five years, to $2.5 million. According to Zillow's affordability calculator, a family would need an income of about $350,000, plus a hefty $500,000 down payment, to afford a home priced in the middle range of houses in that area if they were buying today. The high cost of housing is a significant issue in many major metropolitan areas, especially in areas with high paying jobs in emerging industries like technology.

Condos are cheaper than single-family homes, as are homes in another part of town, but neither are cheap. The median home price in the city as a whole is about $627,000, which requires a household income of about $100,000, assuming a twenty percent down payment. Renting a two-bedroom apartment costs an average of $3,000 in Los Angeles, and probably more in the vicinity of my acquaintance’s office.

Moving farther from one’s job could save money on housing, but it has other costs. Commuting in the Los Angeles area can be notoriously time consuming and take time away from family responsibilities, such as preparing meals, taking children to and from school and after school activities, and other tasks families with children often do regularly.

Perhaps the family decided to live in a pricier area because the quality of its public schools, a major concern for families with children. Moving away could mean changing schools, which could mean lower quality and a disruption for kids who might have to leave friends behind. And there can be challenges if people work far from their children’s school if kids get sick and need to be picked up, or if there are school-related activities like sporting events or other performances that parents hope to attend.

And then there is the cost of higher education; my acquaintance’s co-worker’s child will soon be attending a state university. While attending a public university might sound like a bargain, the current cost of tuition, is about $14,000; add on fees, books, and room and board (the campus isn’t within commuting distance) and the cost of attending climbs to an estimated $31,500 per year for in-state students.

By contrast, in 1975, when my acquaintance was college-aged, tuition and fees were about $630. Adjusted for inflation (using the BLS inflation calculator), that’s just under $3,000 in 2017 dollars, more than a four-fold increase. Putting these costs in perspective, it is easier to understand why families who hope to send their children to college would need two incomes (and sometimes even this isn’t enough).

These are just a few reasons that people with incomes in the top twenty percent of all earners still might need two incomes, and even struggle when they have them. Beyond current need, having two people in the labor force acts as a form of insurance in an unstable job market in case one earner finds their income reduced, loses a job, becomes disabled, dies, or the couple separates. And of course many people find working in the labor force fulfilling, whether they are parents or not.

My acquaintance has struggled in the labor market in recent years, with bouts of unemployment during the recession, possibly compounded by age discrimination. I can understand how he might not have much sympathy for upper-income families trying to send their kids to college and hang on to an economic status that has eluded him. Their struggles seem like privileges to him, and in many ways they are. But they are struggles nonetheless.

Comments

There are indeed various reasons for a two-income household. Although I must say that one income can suffice, depending on one's expenditures. To each his own. The ideal situation for one family may be different to his neighbor's. On the otherhand, as you said, and I agree, everyone has their own struggles to face and conquer in their own ways.

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