Author (or Editor): Warren, Elizabeth and Tyagi, Amelia Warren

Title: The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers are Growing Broke

Fiction? Anthology?  

Publisher:  Basic Books

Date: 2003

ISBN:  0-465-09082-6

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound

Relevance to doaskdotell: 

Review: The subtitle for this book is

“With Surprising Solutions That Will Change Your Children’s Futures”

To recap: the middle class is getting hit by a self-driven mechanism: the bidding up of real estate prices in exurban neighborhoods with top-rate school districts. (In the Dallas TX area, where I lived in the 1980s, this was called the “Richardson-Plano” problem.) Families go deeper into debt also with child care, longer commutes, bigger cars or SUV’s, and especially health insurance, as well as, all too frequently, genuine medical catastrophes. The “marriage penalty,” which president Bush is getting Congress to roll back, hit two income families, where as single income families tend to enjoy a “marriage surplus.”

And what is the solution? Well, the authors are pretty pragmatic and progressive (you could call them mainstream liberals); but their core idea is to invest more in public education (to include preschool), and let parents have vouchers or permits to send their children to the best public schools available. There are other reforms, such as exempting family savings from taxes, and credit and debt collection reforms. And thank goodness, the authors don’t go on the morality trip of blaming yuppies, singles, and (especially) gays and lesbians for competing with their discretionary income.

I back up a bit here. When I moved to Dallas in the late 70s, I was struck by the demographics of my new city, and but the rush of young parents (and employers) to locate themselves in the prestigious Richardson and (even more suburban) Plano independent school districts did bid up the cost of single family homes quickly. Older neighborhoods like Oak Lawn and Oak Cliff would be “gentrified” and settled by people without young kids: often, retirees, but especially GLBT. 

And all of this brings up a subject of great complexity. In fact, in many other cities (such as Minnespolis-St Paul) the separation by “desirable schools” is not as clearcut as I found it in Dallas. Housing prices sway essentially because of the way our markets work. They can go down, too (I as found out in Dallas in the late 1980s).

Yet, the authors make a strong point, and it is necessary to go into many other angles, the psychological perspective. Much of the great American middle class bases its value system on the idea of freedom and self-expression through raising ones kids to have more opportunities than one had, to the point that one proves one’s success by the relative start one can give one’s kids. So much cultural tension comes out of this. Singles, the childless, and often enough gays and lesbians create competition by setting their own personal goals first (without respect to children); often more gifted or differently motivated straights do the same, postponing children until they are prepared “themselves” first. They provide a major “distraction” from the cultural idea that family and kids is to be the heart of freedom and identity, an idea that has grown progressively weaker in the radical individualism of the past forty years.

But personal-growth-before-family does not work for a lot of people. The bidding up of housing prices for families synergizes with the two-income family, setting up a cycle that sometimes puts the suburban two-income family of greater risk of financial meltdown than the one-income family that accepts a somewhat lower living standard from the beginning. When something goes wrong – whether divorce, job loss or, even more often, a medical crisis or disability—the family goes broke quickly.

I’ve watched all of this myself from a distance for years. In the 1990s, I had to take over payments on a Texas condo that I had sold on assumption, after its value had fallen. Eventually I came out of that OK. In 2003, I would work as a debt collector for a while, talking all day to people who had fallen into this trap; but most often divorce or medical problems had driven them to collection agencies rather than “over consumption” itself.

The two-income issue brings up another point with me: gender roles. When I was growing up as a teenage boy, it amazed me that a man could be sexually attracted to someone who would be dependent on him. I just didn’t get it then.

The authors make the point that the school and creditor problems could be addressed by more aggressive activism. This is a women’s problem and a minority problem, to be sure. Yet, one is left with a fundamental question. At what point do we as a society expect people to follow through with the consequences of their own personal choices? When are these choices related to family values really choices or options, and when are they cultural and moral necessities? I know, this kind of discussion can turn mean, given the implications. Toward the end, the authors discuss seriously, without conclusion, the idea of childlessness as a valid personal choice, given the way society penalizes parents with the extreme costs of child-rearing which, it is clear, will quickly apply to eldercare as well, making children of small families (even only children like me) pay their dues, just later in life.

Yet, there is the point of view that families with kids can build wealth if they remain disciplined. See

“Building wealth, even with kids: 'I have kids' often means 'So, I'm broke.' But it doesn't have to be that way”, September 26, 2003, By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN/Money Senior Staff Writer. Of course, the problem here is that things often go wrong, and families do live paycheck to paycheck.

Related: The Baby Boon


Back to doaskdotell book reviews

Back to doaskdotell home page


Email me at