Family Structure is Overrated as an Explanation of Inequality, Part 2 on DeParle

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Written by Shawn Fremstad   
Tuesday, 17 July 2012 09:30

In Sunday's New York Times, Jason DeParle contrasts the economic security of Jessica Shairer, a single mother of three who works at a child care center in Ann Arbor and makes under $25,000 (despite having an A.A. degree, being a manager, and working six years with the same employer), with that of her boss, Chris Faulkner, who is married to a man who appears to makes around $60,000. (DeParle says Ms. Faulkner makes $25,000 a year, and that her family income is near "the 75th percentile", so their total income is probably around $85,000).

DeParle's uses Shairer and Faulker to tell a story that pins a big chunk of the rising income inequality among families with children on changes in family structure. As the story's title puts it, when Deparle looks at Shairer and Faulkner, he sees "Two Classes, Divided by 'I Do.'" As I pointed out in my previous post, the reality-based, rather than anecdotal, evidence for his framing is weak. Yes, the increase in single-parent families between 1975-1985 had some affect on inequality among families with children, but long-term increases in women's employment and educational attainment far outweight any effect family structure trends have had.

When I read DeParle's story, the big questions that came up for me mostly had to do with gender inequality and how poorly we compensate workers like Ms. Shairer (and Ms. Faulkner for that matter) whose job it is to take care of children, seniors, and people with disabilities. 

  • Why is OK to pay the mostly female workers who take care of other people's children and of seniors and people with disabilities so little? (Average wages for workers in care occupations are less than half of average wages for workers overall: for child care workers, average annual wages are $21,320 compared with $45,230 for workers overall. And, it's not just about education—nearly half of all child care workers have either some college or a college degree).

  • After an operation for cervical cancer, Shairer wasn't able to take the time off recommended by her doctor because it would have been unpaid. Why is it OK to not provide the vast majority of care workers with basic employment benefits like paid sick and disabilty leave? Do you want a worker who is ill caring for your children just because they can't afford to take unpaid leave? (Just 27 percent of child-care workers have access to paid sick leave. By comparison, among workers in the top quartile of the wage distribution, 90 percent have paid sick leave, and lots of other benefits.)

  • Both Mr. Faulkner and Ms. Faulker have 4-year college degrees and, except for their gender difference, appear to be demographically similar. Why does he, a computer programmer, earn more than twice as much as she does as a manager/director of a child care center?

  • Has growth in wage inequality (which we know isn't at all affected by family structure) and increasing concentration of economic gains (including benefits from the massive Bush tax cuts) in the hands of the wealthy few had the effect of limiting social investment in child care and development for most American children, and depressed care workers' wages? (Funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, not a lot to begin with, has fallen both as a share of GDP and in real dollar terms since 2001. Meanwhile, the Bush tax cuts have delivered more than $1 trillion to the top 5 percent since 2001.) 

Alas, DeParle doesn't ask these questions, maybe because Charles Murray hasn't written a book about them.

I should add that these are not small questions, and that they will only get more important going forward. Currently, some 4.15 million workers are employed in two major care occupations—child care workers and direct care workers (nursing aides, personal and home care aides, and home health aides). All of the major care occupations are on the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s list of the occupations with the largest projected job growth by 2018.  Overall, the major care occupations are projected to grow by nearly 1.3 million jobs between 2008 and 2018, a 28 percent increase. By the way, this projected increase is considerably larger than the miniscule decline in the share of children living with both parents over the last decade (69.1% in 2001 to 68.9% in 2011).

Tags: families | income | inequality | jobs | low-wage workers | poverty | working class