Tucker Carlson has a point: Middle class families rely more than ever on women’s wages

Lauren Hoffmann, 29, a college program manager, interacts with a colleague at work in San Antonio, Texas, U.S., February 15, 2019. Hoffmann's baby boy Micah is just a few weeks old and already she is back at work. She only had five and a half weeks of accrued paid time off from her job. "You're worried about this tiny little new life, you love it so fiercely," she said. "Having more time to feel like you're getting good at this ... I think that could only be a good thing." REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare  SEARCH "O'HARE PARENTAL" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RC1B59146620

When Tucker Carlson agrees with Elizabeth Warren, it is worth taking notice. At a recent conservative conference, Mr. Carslon described Sen. Warren’s book, The Two Income Trap as “one of the best books” he had read on economic policy. “The single biggest change to our society,” he went on, “was the moment where it became impossible for the average person to support a family on one income.”

There is a lot to quibble about here, not least how precisely to define “impossible,” “average,” and “support.” But the basic fact is right. The question is what conclusion to draw. As a populist poster-boy for the right, Mr. Tucker is likely to conclude that the solution is for women to return to home and hearth. In fact, the opposite is true.

To bolster middle class family incomes, women are likely to have to work more, rather than less. This has costs in terms of family time, leisure, but it is a fact of modern economic life. Better to help families cope with it–through paid leave policies, flexible working arrangements, affordable childcare, and fair scheduling rules–than to rail against it.

Poor families have long been reliant on women’s wages, not least because many of them are single parents. But today, women are the main breadwinner in 40% of middle-class families (those in the middle three-fifths of the income distribution) compared to 26% in 1975. Far from being “pin money,” the earnings of women, including mothers, are keeping middle class families economically afloat. Because the drop in a woman’s earnings following the birth of a child is so severe, household income drops by six to eight percent, a hit that persists for years.

Over the last few decades, the wages of men with less than a college education have not been growing, while the wages of women have risen across the board, though much more so at the top. What this means is that the motherhood wage penalty has become a family wage penalty.

The problem is that women’s wages still take a hit when they become mothers. The earnings of a new mom fall by four to ten percent. Even as more mothers work, the motherhood wage penalty remains largely unchanged. Why?

One obvious reason is that women still take on more childcare responsibilities than fathers. To that extent, the wage “penalty” is in part a reflection of family preferences. To the extent that mothers want to stay at home with their kids or work part-time, there will be economic consequences. These costs are less for affluent couples, since earnings for both men and women with high levels of education have been rising.

Meanwhile the mothers and fathers in middle class families increasingly have to combine paid work with caring for their children. Right now, that balancing act can be a difficult one. Employment legislation and workplace culture are lagging the realities of modern family life. Three issues ought to be top of policymakers’ minds: paid leave, childcare, and fair scheduling.

The U.S. remains the only advanced economy without a national paid leave policy, although there are growing bipartisan calls for movement on this front and many states have introduced legislation. There is strong evidence that access to paid leave can help parents, especially mothers, to keep earning. Paternity leave can help Dad to do more on the home front, thereby easing pressure on Mom. Many fathers want more involvement. In an ideal world, leave should be available to mothers and fathers on an equal basis.

Second, when both parents are at work, access to affordable, high-quality childcare is vital. Three in five parents who say they are struggling financially report that the cost of childcare has caused a “serious problem,” according to a survey from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Third, a growing number of parents have to cope with uncertain schedules. Among hourly workers aged 26 to 32, half of whom are parents, two in five are told their work schedules less than a week in advance. Most report significant weekly fluctuations in hours, according to research by Susan Lambert at the University of Chicago. A 10-hour week can follow a 30-hour week. Fair scheduling laws are now on the books in cities like San Francisco, New York and Seattle, and there are proposals for similar legislation at a national level.

It is not for the government to dictate how families decide how to balance work and care, and how mothers and fathers share these tasks between them. Nobody, to use an old feminist phrase, can “have it all.” But it is for the government to help to ensure that middle class families can get more than they currently do. The economy is missing out on the full value of the skills of millions of mothers. Middle class families are missing the earnings of women on which they now rely. Helping working mothers is not just about gender equality. It is about restoring the middle class.