Caught in the Whirlwind: US Working-Class Families Face the Economic Crisis

Posted September 27, 2010

The Great Recession has no doubt punctured US celebration of the unregulated market, generated anger at wealth disparities and shock at the loss of the American Dream. Yet three decades of conservative dominance and political drift to the right have taken their toll.

With the cooptation and/or destruction of vehicles for working-class resistance (especially unions, civil rights and community-based organizations), most working-class families are not engaged in collective action but instead fending for themselves, desperately seeking ways to avoid the brunt of this crisis. Reliance on (and continued possibilities for) individual survival strategies tends to reproduce existing social divisions; these, in turn, undergird the prevailing populist response to the crisis.

In this political worldview, where “Main Street” confronts “Wall Street,” “deserving Americans” (aka “working families”) are caught between an irresponsible, self-serving elite and a dependent, parasitic “underclass” of people of color. There are more and less conservative versions of the “Wall Street/ Main Street” discourse. However, they all share the assumption that self-sufficient family households are both sign and substance of the American ideal.

Although the male breadwinner family (made up of a man who works for wages full-time, a woman who works full-time in the home unpaid and children) is no longer the one and only standard for “good” families, the hard-working family that takes care of its own remains central to the actual survival strategies on which the vast majority of working-class people rely and, therefore, also, remains at the center of hegemonic definitions of citizenship, virtue and the good life.

The ideal of the self-sufficient family is a myth obscuring the many private and public subsidies that allow successful families to maintain standards of living, protect their children from harm and transmit class and race privilege from one generation to the next. This ideal also justifies the continuing dependence of family households on the extensive exploitation of women’s labour. Women have kept working-class family households afloat by increasing their participation in waged work in addition to their unpaid labour, freeing both male partners/ spouses, corporations and government from fully supporting the work of social reproduction. Further, although some women-headed family households are able to make it financially, single motherhood is more often a ticket to poverty than to independence.

Yet, to the extent that single mothers survive even in impoverished circumstance, they often do so by relying on social networks that include their children’s fathers and other kin. Familial connections, in other words, are crucial to the reproduction of people and social class. They are also a narrow form of solidarity that, in ordinary circumstances, reinforces rather than challenges the competitive striving endemic to capitalist economy and society.

Family networks are not inevitably or always conservatizing. When embedded in broader communities of resistance, they can be mobilized for collective action expressing expanded boundaries of solidarity. However, outside such circumstances working-class survival strategies organized through family networks tend to reinforce rather than transcend existing social divisions because family networks tend to be insular along the lines of class and race.

In the short run, then, we can expect these divisions to retard the development of radical, anti-capitalist, movements in response to what promises to be a long-lived slide, if not a continuing acute crisis, in working-class standards of living and conditions of work. On the other hand, the family survival strategies that have so far allowed a large part of the working class to weather the recent crisis and the decades-long attack on male workers’ wages as well as the dismantling of the “private welfare state” of employer-based pensions and health insurance, will inevitably run into their limits. Like the earth’s resources, there is a limit to the carrying capacity of the human body.

Of course, distress does not automatically lead to resistance. But increasing strain on what had been relatively successful survival strategies will surely open some opportunities for the Left. In thinking about how to take advantage of these opportunities, the Left should carefully consider both the kinds of reforms we support and the language we use to defend and justify those changes. If we intend to use the fight for reforms to prefigure alternatives to capitalism, then we need develop alternatives to gendered and racialized political visions of family life, while at the same time acknowledging and respecting the emotionally-laden material commitments that give those discourses such power.

Prelude to the Crisis

The rise of a new capitalist regime of flexible accumulation, global restructuring of the economy and a one-sided class war extending over the past thirty years have reshaped the living and working conditions of the US working class. One fundamental consequence of capitalist victory in this war has been the precipitous decline in men’s wages and their access to secure employment; this decline undermined the material basis of the working-class male breadwinner family household. Married couples maintained their standard of living by sending mothers into the labour force and by taking on enormous amounts of debt, while single parents drifted ever deeper into poverty.

Women keep families afloat

Between 1979 and 2007 the real wages of men 25 years and older with less than a college education declined, for some groups precipitously, while, with the exception of women who did not graduate from high school, women’s wages rose. Most spectacularly, the real earnings of women with a bachelor’s degree or higher skyrocketed by 33 percent. (Real earnings of men with the same education increased, but less — by 18 percent.) College-educated women reaped the benefits of the feminist movement, breaking into what had been the exclusive male preserve of upper managerial and professional occupations.

A gender wage gap remains within all educational groups, since men started out with earnings substantially higher than those of women. Nonetheless, the gender gap has been narrowing, while the class gap is widening.

In 1979 a woman with at least a bachelor’s degree working full time earned less than a man with either some college or a high school education. By 2007, this pattern had been completely reversed: men with a high-school education earned 74 percent of the incomes of college educated women, while men with some college earned 87 percent as much as women with at least a college degree.

Such large income gains by professional/managerial men and women inevitably increased income inequality among families. Between 1979 and 2000 household incomes of married-couple families with children grew for all families, but exponentially more for the top 20 percent of all families, who saw their income jump by 66 percent. In the six years leading up to the crisis, from 2000-2006, when married-couple family incomes were declining or barely growing, wives’ earnings made all the difference: wives’ earnings either reduced the decline in family income which occurred across the bottom three-fifths of all married couple families with children or allowed for small increases in real family incomes in the top two-fifths.

Of course, once we chart the changing family fortunes of all prime-age men and women, which include, in addition to married couple families, families where parents living together are not married, single parents with a cohabiting partner, parents living with a relative or other adult, and solo parents, the picture darkens even further. For all families headed by adults age 25-54, the last thirty years have seen median family income plummet by 29 percent in the lowest income families (the bottom 30 percent of all families) and by 13.2 percent for families in the middle 50 percent of the income distribution. Meanwhile, rather than losing ground, median income rose for families in the top 20 percent.

Borrowing to keep up

In addition to increasing women’s hours in paid labour, families also survived through taking on debt. Although media and pundit excoriation of “profligate and irresponsible” borrowing is widespread, household debt, at least for families, reflected efforts to simply maintain their standard of living when housing and healthcare expenses were climbing and employment increasingly unstable. A 2005 survey of “low and middle” income households with credit card debt found that almost one in three had used credit cards in the last year to pay for basic expenses including, rent or mortgage, medical, groceries, utilities or insurance.

Credit card debt also partially drove the rise in mortgage debt. Homeowners who borrowed on their homes did so to pay off their debts rather than for conspicuous consumption. A 2005 survey of households with credit card debt found that half of these households used home equity loans to pay down credit card debt. For those homeowners targeted by predatory lenders, refinancing was primarily through ultimately disastrous sub-prime mortgages.

In 2006, 61 percent of subprime loans went to people who could have qualified for loans with better terms. Women were 32 percent more likely than men to receive a subprime loan and 41 percent more likely to receive a high-cost subprime mortgage. The gap between men and women became greater as incomes rose: women earning over twice the median income in their local area were 46 percent more likely than men with similar incomes to receive subprime mortgages. Women of colour were more likely than white women to be sub-prime borrowers. As debt rose, so did the number of personal bankruptcies, increasing 400 percent between 1980 and 2002. Again, while pundits and politicians cited consumer irresponsibility to justify restrictive changes in the bankruptcy laws, overspending was not leading families into financial ruin. In 2001 “trouble managing money” or “credit card overspending” accounted for less than 6 percent of family bankruptcies; nearly 90 per cent of bankruptcies were driven by a job loss, a medical problem, a family breakup or some combination of all three.

Who takes care?

Although the last thirty years have seen profound changes in gender relations, timing of marriage and first childbirth, life expectancy, and household formation, the core answer to this question is still the family household and kin networks.

Throughout the life cycle, families and family households provide a private safety net within which kin share unpaid care work, living space and income. The first and most important point here is that care remains largely a private responsibility of the family household and takes significant amounts of time. It is only by pooling their time and incomes that individuals are able to deliver the care that children, injured and ill adults, and elders need.

In families where women and men work full time, men do more housework and care giving than in families where women work part-time or not at all. Still, across the increasing variety in family arrangements, women’s care work provides the bedrock of family survival.

Just in caring for household members, married couples with children under 18 together put in from almost seven to almost 9.5 hours every day on average. In addition, close to one in five adults are providing unpaid care for a person 50 years or older, spending an average of 19 hours per week. Mothers have made room for paid work by cutting back on hours spent in housework and by getting help from male partners. Between 1965 and 2000 married fathers doubled the time they spend in housework (from 4.4 to 9.7 hours a week), while married mothers” time decreased by 44 percent. Yet women’s total unpaid labour time did not decrease commensurately, because some of the time saved on housework was devoted to increased hours caring for children.

Caring for children

Men do more childcare and housework than they used to, but fathers in many dual-earner families still specialize in paid work, while mothers shoulder more responsibilities for care. Among dual earning married couples with children under 18, full-time working fathers worked more hours per day than full-time working mothers (fathers’ workdays were 16 percent longer). Mothers employed full-time performed 52 percent more housework and childcare than their full-time working husbands. Not surprisingly, fathers had 28 percent more time for leisure and sports than did mothers. Full-time working mothers work many more hours (in paid and unpaid work combined) than mothers who are employed part-time or not employed. In other words, dual-earner strategies rest on an extension of women’s total working hours.

Caring for adults

In 2009, an estimated 61.8 million people provided unpaid care to an adult relative — on average more than 20 hours a week. About 43.5 million people (19 percent of all adults) care for a family member or friend who is age 50 or older; two-thirds of these caregivers are women. Although most families will care for adult members at some point, professional/managerial families bring many more resources to this task. Low-income families are more than twice as likely as higher-income families to provide more than 30 hours of unpaid assistance a week to parents or parents in law and fully 20 percent of poor families do so. The burden of caring for ill and disabled people is higher in working- class families because they tend to have more, and more serious, health problems. About three-quarters of caregivers to adults also have worked for pay while providing care. Difficulties at work are common for these caregivers and especially so for working-class caregivers who have less control over their work activities and schedules than do those in professional/managerial occupations. Nor can they afford to buy their way out of work/caring conflicts as professional/managerial families do.

Among adults aged 25, the proportions living with parents between 1970 and 2000 increased 48 percent for white men, 66 percent for Black men, 72 percent for white women, and 73 percent for Black women. By 2007, 20 percent of men and 16 percent of women age 25-29 lived with parents. The capitalist accumulation strategies that came to define the US economy over the last thirty years have increased class inequalities among young adults. Contrary to popular perception, college education has not become more widespread over the past three decades. In 2007 only 25 percent of young adults 25-34 had a bachelor’s degree and only five percent had graduate degrees.

Meanwhile, the life chances of children not born into professional/ managerial families have shifted dramatically. As already noted, men without a college degree have lost ground in wages and employment since 1980. Although the real wages of the women they are likely to marry or partner with have risen somewhat, they remain far below the levels that these less educated men used to earn. In the professional/managerial class, postponement of marriage and childbearing in favor of education and savings supports occupational success. For the working-class, postponing marrying and having children represents the challenges of establishing an independent household on working-class wages. These differences are also, of course, aggravated by institutionalized racism.

Families in the Crisis

The current economic crisis has accelerated all the trends described above and revealed the fragility as well as the importance of these family survival strategies. Women’s wages are even more crucial sources of household income, young adults are turning to parents for financial support and housing, the number of intergenerational families is growing and marriage and fertility rates are declining. Existing divisions within the working class are widening, as some families manage to hold on, while others — solo mothers, low-wage couples, the long-term unemployed — plunge even further into financial disaster. And for many families, the strategies that worked in the past are reaching their limits: there are simply not enough hours in the day, nor enough jobs, nor people available to help care.

Shelter from the storm

Where women’s earnings once kept families afloat, now they are cushioning families with unemployed men from total disaster. Women’s unemployment rates are lower than men’s because the hardest hit sectors of the economy, construction and manufacturing, employ many more men than women. Although women have lost jobs, their unemployment rate in 2009 was 8.1 percent, compared to 10.3 percent for men. Between 2007 and 2009 the proportion of families with an unemployed member almost doubled (from 6.3 percent to 12 percent, the highest level since this data began being collected in 1994). In two-thirds of married couple families with an unemployed husband, the wife remained at work.

Mothers not living in a married couple household are faring very badly in the crisis; between 2007 and 2009 their unemployment rates skyrocketed from 8 percent to 13.6 percent.

When the crisis hit, many adult children turned to parents for help. A survey of unemployed adults found that 50 percent had borrowed money from friends or relatives, predominantly from parents. The recession caused a significant spike in the proportion of young adults living with parents. In just 12 months between 2007 and 2008, the number of people living in a multi-generational family household increased by 2.6 million. The proportion of adults aged 25-34 living in multigenerational households grew six percent. In 2009, 13 percent of parents reported that an adult child had moved in with them. Although these were most likely to be young adults whose unemployment rates have skyrocketed, older adults have also been forced to go back home. 11 percent of those aged 25-34 said they had moved in with their parents because of the recession. The proportion of people of this age living in the home of a parent was 10 percent higher in 2009 than in 2007. What is more, fully 11 per cent of people in what is considered the prime working years, aged 35 to 44, had moved in with parents or in-laws.

Uneven impacts, uneven resources

The effects of the crisis on families are widespread. A December 2009 survey found that 44 percent of families had experienced the job loss of one or more members, a reduction in hours, or a cut in pay over the past year. But they are also very uneven. Some families are managing much better than others and these differences map along familiar lines. Single-parent households, workers who are not part of the professional/managerial class and families of colour, are much more likely to experience unemployment, to be ineligible for unemployment benefits, to have given up looking for work, to have lost health coverage, to be in foreclosure and to be renters pushed out of their homes by foreclosure. In 2009, the unemployment rate for college-educated Black workers was double the rate for whites. Before the crisis hit, between 2000 and 2007, Black employment decreased by 2.4 percent and incomes declined by 2.9 percent. One third of Black children lived in poverty. Those years were already a recession for Black communities; today, what the crisis has wrought for them can only be described as the Great Black Depression.

Resources to deal with the crisis are also unevenly distributed. For example, although one in four homeowners owe more than their properties are worth, most US homeowners still have some equity and nearly 24 million owner-occupied homes don’t have any mortgage. College-educated people caring for disabled, ill, or elderly adults have more paid help and are much less likely to be the person providing most of the care. In contrast, many working-class families have had to increase the amount of unpaid labour they provide to ill, disabled or elderly family members. The use of paid aides, housekeepers or other services to care for adults declined from 41 percent in 2004 to 35 percent in 2009. Households who were able to afford paid help in 2004 were less able to do so in 2009.

Access to the public safety net is uneven as well. Only 30 percent of unemployed contingent workers (low-wage, part-time and temporary workers, who are more likely to be women and men of colour) receive unemployment benefits compared to 55 percent of unemployed non-contingent workers.

Political effects

The uneven impact of the crisis on families and the skewed distribution of resources (savings, home equity, adequate pensions, income) among families have political effects.

For now, among many sectors of the working class, it is possible for family networks to offer significant shelter from the storm. Yet, the crisis, which is unlikely to end quickly or with a new burst of economic growth, will ratchet up the pressures on families, as savings are depleted, as joblessness extends month after month, as mothers seek to re-enter paid work or extend their hours, and as women’s employment comes under new attack as a consequence of the fiscal crisis in state and local government, paired with the conservative drumbeat demanding deficit reduction at the federal level. Without serious infusions of cash from the federal government, state and local spending is slated for slashing cuts.

While some of the cuts will be taken through reduction in public workers’ pay (direct cuts and unpaid time off), a fall in employment in the public sector is quite likely. Since women workers are overrepresented in the public sector, these shifts are likely to increase their unemployment rate, removing some of the cushion that women’s employment has provided to families thus far in the crisis. Public sector cuts will also worsen the conditions under which families provide unpaid care work. Shorter school days or school years, cuts in public transportation, cuts in spending on home care and reductions in subsidized childcare all increase the unpaid labour time that the household must deliver. Single mothers are more likely to rely on all these services, but women in two-parent families will also be forced to spend more hours on care work.

Developing a politics of care

Misery does not create resistance. But as current family survival strategies run up against their limits, openings for organizing will appear. Meanwhile, the accelerating drumbeat of opposition to public sector workers is forcing their unions into a last-ditch battle. If the unions are ready to embrace strategies for building genuine community-labour alliances it might be possible to overcome the growing hostility directed at public sector workers and build an effective movement around the politics of care. This politics of care will challenge the devaluation of carework and careworkers as well as create links between those who use care services and the workers who provide them.

We are not likely to make gains very quickly. But in fashioning our strategies, the basis can be laid for a new politics of care that challenges capitalism’s animating principles and embodies a vision of social solidarity and participatory democracy.

Three themes might be useful in making the case for reforms in a way that promotes a broader anti-capitalist politics:

From private to public: In defending and even demanding the expansion of public services, we want to emphasize the inequality and insecurity that pervade provision of care when it is a commodity. For example, the fight for a public health care system (what in the US is called a single-payer system) highlights the injustice of relying on family resources to access health care.

From hierarchy to democracy: One of the most effective neoliberal political ideas is the demand that government is made more accountable by contracting-out government services to private and non-profit organizations that are supposedly more flexible and responsive to those who depend on these services. We can effectively counter this neoliberal agenda by building on the experiments in democratizing government that have been won through popular and trade union struggles. These creative initiatives offer alternatives to bureaucracy far more compelling than phony involvement and superficial accountability.

From exclusion to inclusion: The campaigns for immigrant rights and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people have posed, in different ways, the question of social citizenship: who belongs to the “we” that cares for and about each other? Rather than emphasizing, as these campaigns often do, that immigrants and LGBT families are “hard-working” — “like us” — and therefore “deserving,” we could demystify the self-sufficient family ideal, expose the important, but now too limited, ways that we collectively support each other, and demand that these helping hands be extended to all.

Might we say from each according to ability and to each according to need?

Johanna Brenner is a member of Solidarity: A democratic, revolutionary socialist, feminist, anti-racist organization. She is politically active in Portland, Oregon. Thanks to Mary C. King for sharing her work and Barbara Laslett and the editors of Socialist Register for very helpful editorial comments. A more complete version of this article will be published in Socialist Register 2011.


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