Two-Income Households and Lifestyle

workingwomenOne common refrain in the comments section of yesterday’s income inequality post is that much of the lifestyle gain made by Americans in the past thirty years is a result of dual-income families.  Whilst a man could earn enough to support his family in a middle class lifestyle in those days, they argue, that’s no longer the case.

I’m not sure this is true in any meaningful sense. Most want two incomes because they want to live a 2010 lifestyle; they could maintain a 1978 lifestyle on one income.

Beyond that, the reasons for two income families were mostly social and political rather than economic.  Indeed, the explosion came during the boom times of the 1980s and 1990s.

But, once it became acceptable for married women who didn’t “have to” to take jobs outside the home, it soon became a stigma not to do so. Being “just a housewife” was not something a bright, educated woman should settle for.   And, once “allowed to” became “expected,” the lifestyle expectations shifted because people began comparing themselves to two-income households.

Of course, this changes the supply and demand curve.  Most notably, it doubtless contributed to the most recent housing bubble.  People could “afford” to mortgage a million dollar home because they had two incomes and this drove up prices, making it harder for single-earner families to keep up.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. PD Shaw says:

    With 22% of husbands reporting that their wives bring in more money than them (and this was before the recession), I think the question soon becomes: What are the political and social stigmas associated with men’s decisions whether or not to work.

  2. Marty says:

    It’s not entirely lifestyle expectations driving this dynamic. In the 60’s & 70’s (as well as prior), a single-earner household had expectations of job security & pension in retirement. As these have been taken away, it’s natural to mitigate your risk by having a backup. I recently lost my job after 27 years in the workforce; if my wife wasn’t working, we may well have lost the house, regardless of whether or not it was a cut above my parents’ old ranch in the ‘burbs.

  3. This is the kind of opinion which could benefit from some statistics. I’ll see what I can dig up later on.

    One note though: debt.

    Again, if two incomes were bringing prosperity then we’d expect household debt to get no worse, and possibly to decline. That hours-worked went up even as debt went up …. is that really the lifestyle change we wanted? What happened to defined benefit retirement plans in that time-frame? Did the dual income savings make up for the loss of pension?

    I don’t think so, and I think this is something both the right and the left missed on. The left was about giving everyone equal access to debt, while the right was about defending any quality of loan. Talk about that continuum again … was anyone in economics arguing for lower household leverage?

  4. Lunacy says:

    If by 1978 lifestyle you mean driving one car that cost 5,000 dollars, a home worth 20,000, no cable, no cell phone, no internet…

    The average teacher or policeman makes under 50,000 a year. Even if the two marry they will struggle to make ends meet when they have children together.

  5. BTW, another note: Americans tend to treat cash flow as if it were wealth.

    Consider how often the “rich” are defined by income per year. That isn’t wealth. That’s cash flow.

    This mistaken view of income affects politics, certainly, but I think it is also why so many seeming “power couples” got in trouble. With a combined income of $150K or more, they thought they were rich. Well, they might have been if they socked it away. Unfortunately one upscale house and a couple nice leased autos was enough to turn them into “workers.” In fact, in an effect Elizabeth Warren deserves more credit for documenting, they are more vulnerable than traditional workers.

    Now, when they lose a piece of that $150K (or more) they have a huge house and two auto leases (plus credit cards) to carry on one income.

  6. Heh, everybody talks about 70’s homes versus now … if you were a southern Californian you might be dreaming about those huge 70’s lots, and not the postage stamps of today.

    My dad, a school teacher, got a 2400 sft house on 1/3 acre. In a suburb. I don’t think a teacher can afford that today.

  7. Mark says:

    I don’t agree, James. I make a decent living in a major city and my college-educated wife would gladly stay home with our daughter if it were economically possible. But even considering that child care costs eat up 70 percent of her income, that extra 30 percent is crucial to us saving anything at all.

  8. James Joyner says:

    I make a decent living in a major city and my college-educated wife would gladly stay home with our daughter if it were economically possible. But even considering that child care costs eat up 70 percent of her income, that extra 30 percent is crucial to us saving anything at all.

    Housing costs in major cities are still out of whack. But I wonder how much that’s a function of dual-income couples competing for housing and driving prices up.

    But it’s also true that our expectations as to a normal middle class lifestyle have gone up tremendously in the last 30 years.

  9. Highlander says:

    Capitalism only works as long as the economic pie gets continually bigger. That means an ever growing number of wage earners and consumers.

    In 60s and 70s the system put “Mommy” to work in order to continue the growth (Mommy was conned into believing that her new life in the corporate “cubicle” was some form of liberation).

    Then massive numbers of younger and younger teenagers were added in part time and full time work.(go to the mall and look at how incredibly young the work force is)

    Today the reason the government isn’t really interested in truly stopping illegal immigration is. The system has to have the additional bodies as worker bees/consumers in order to make the itself continue to grow.

    We Baby Boomer’s made a major error on our narcissistic journey through life in that we didn’t produce enough off spring to replace our numbers.(too much sex, drugs, and rock and roll,and abortion… and not enough Fornication for Procreation)

    Now there won’t be enough young to pay for our doddering old age. Today’s stressed economy is just the first whiff of the coming demographic/economic carnage.

    Strap in tightly! Pay up time is almost here.

  10. 11B40 says:


    It seems obvious to me that if a large number of people alter their “labor versus leisure” analysis and decide to enter the workforce, increasing the supply of available labor, one of the more obvious effects is the depression of wages.

    If you think back to the beginning of the feminist assault on the labor market, you will see that many woman, albeit those easily overlooked working class and poor women, have been in the labor market way before the arrival of the feminine mystiques.
    I grew up in the Bronx of the ’50s and ’60s and my recollection is that at least half the women in our neighborhood were income earners in one way or another.

  11. Capitalism only works as long as the economic pie gets continually bigger. That means an ever growing number of wage earners and consumers.

    You forgot the robots. 😉

    Seriously, technology can increase the economic pie with static population or hours worked. If we wanted, we could even use technology to live simpler lives, with reduced work hours.

  12. Drew says:

    I think odo, uh, john personna, in his comment at 11:18 has put his finger on a very important but underestimated issue.

    I’d quibble, and note that the right number is $200 – $250K, not $150K, but I think he’s dead right on the point.

  13. steve says:

    You should read Douthat and Salam’s Grand New Party. They did a pretty good job of documenting how families and salaries changed. Why it used to be feasible to maintain a pretty good lifestyle on one income.


  14. just me says:

    Well I think the definition of middle class lifestyle has also changed.

  15. M1EK says:

    Again, it’s not the gadgets; it’s not even the bigger houses (although it is, a bit, the higher housing prices caused by forced low-density suburban zoning and infrastructure are more to blame); it’s the fact that my dad had free health care from his employer while I (even though earning much more in real income) am far worse off with a high-deductible HSA plan that doesn’t work as well; he had a real pension while I have nothing but 401ks that are essentially worthless; he paid far less to put his kids through college than I will; and, well, he’ll get some social security back, although not what he put in, while I’ll likely get nothing.

  16. grampagravy says:

    I get it! James is saying that watching one’s financial stability deteriorate over the last 35+ years is actually not bad if one simply redefines what’s “bad.” Just forget the days when one could work in a trade, pay cash for new kids, own a car and a home, and put a little something away for later–without carrying massive debt. Oh yeah, and Mom drove Dad to work in those bad old days of no microwave, then went home to make sure the kids were reared in a manner that precluded terrorist acts at school.
    Heaven forbid we should rail against diminishing wages, higher costs, inaccessible health care, and financial ruin at the drop of a hat when things are this “unbad.”

  17. This bit at The Big Picture might be related. James thinks we are better off, but he is really relying on “substituion.” His version is actually stronger than the substitution in the CPI (chicken for beef). If I’m following him correctly, a home on a smaller lot is better if it has cable ….

    Regardless of how valid a specific substitution feels, we should worry about how arbitrary the process is. At some point someone may (or already may have) does some substitutions to fix the numbers.

  18. magoo says:

    James is ‘not quite sure’ that this is true. Ookay. Well I don’t think James is among those who will give an inch here.

    He’s got long standing resistance to being concerned over income inequality, I get it.

    But in the real world, the majority of dual income households simply do not have a sense of safety anymore. One unplanned surgery that isn’t covered, and you’re bankrupt, just like that.

    It just wasn’t like that back then. Again, I don’t think the conservatives on this site will see this, or can see it. White collar jobs are going overseas, downsizing, etc. The 70s weren’t like this.

    I think we’ve reached a point where dialog stops, because this is where you’d have to change your political philosophy and admit inequality is a serious issue. Conservatives are comfortable with hierarchy, as long as it is not criticized – then it’s ‘class warfare’ to rock the boat.