While watching Elizabeth Warren address the DNC  last night, I was struck by a small piece of her personal story that I’ve heard her tell many times: “Like a lot of you, I grew up in a family on the ragged edge of the middle class,” she said. “My daddy sold carpeting and ended up as a maintenance man. After he had a heart attack, my mom worked the phones at Sears so we could hang on to our house.” Warren would go on to write The Two-Income Trap  with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, in which she described how this model, of stay-at-home wife as economic safety net, has since evaporated. But when she was growing up, one paycheck was enough to support a family. And that meant that middle-class women, who in the 1950s and ’60s were expected to stay out of the labor force and tend to the home, could jump into the workforce if something happened to the husband breadwinner and still support their families until he was back on his feet.
This stood out to me because I just read Hanna Rosin’s excerpt of her new book in the New York Times Magazine . Rosin presages the rise of “a nascent middle-class matriarchy” in which men’s traditional middle-class jobs dry up and women become the breadwinners. While American manufacturing has been on a steady decline for a while, Rosin picked up on an intensified trend during the recession: men were facing historic unemployment levels, while “women’s work” remained steady. Leaving aside for a moment the reversal of those trends in the recovery—which I will pick up more thoroughly when I review her full book—what if that’s our economy’s long-term trajectory? What will it mean if women take the place as head of household? Unlike Warren’s childhood experience, today’s families will have a hard time hanging on to the middle class.
Rosin, at least in this excerpt, focuses mostly on what it means for family structures and the awkward relationship between husbands and wives living in the “traditional values” swaths of America when roles reverse. But perhaps even more troubling are the effects on families that used to represent our middle class.
Rosin admits that while traditionally female sectors jobs like nursing, home healthcare and child care are among the few projected to grow over the next ten years, “These are not necessarily the most desirable or highest-paying jobs.” She even makes clear with her anecdotes that the women of her story who jump into the workplace when their husbands are laid off take far lower paychecks. When the plant that employed the town’s men began laying them all off, Rosin writes, “Many [of the wives] were willing to take low-paying jobs because they hadn’t spent their lives expecting to be the primary breadwinner.”
This is particularly true of any women who had previously adhered to the traditional family model, staying home and caring for their children. “Patsy had little experience in the work force and did not think of herself as a professional or a manager,” Rosin says of one woman she interviews, “but [her] friend told her she could possibly make as much as $20 an hour, which sounded better than the $5.50 she made at day care. It might not have been enough for [her husband] Reuben, but to Patsy, who never had a steady paycheck, it sounded incredible.”
It’s clear that occupational segregation is alive and well in these families’ lives. And that means the women will bring in smaller paychecks than their husbands once did when they head into the workforce. “Women’s work” just doesn’t pay as well  as men’s. At the low end of the skill level, male-dominated fields pay nearly $150 more a week than female-dominated ones. At the high end of the skill level, that number balloons to $471 less a week. Those are devastating numbers for any family relying on a mother’s paycheck.
But even more troubling may be that while men’s middle-class jobs have been eroded by the recession, the same has held true for women’s work. As I wrote earlier this week , a new report from the National Employment Law Project shows that mid-wage jobs have been decimated by the economic downturn, only to be replaced by low-wage ones. This phenomenon is happening to both genders. For women, it manifests most pointedly in the hemorrhaging of secretary and administrative assistant jobs as employees are asked to take on more duties at work. When they lose these solidly middle-class jobs, they tend to take work as home health aides, cashiers and waitresses. So if women are now becoming the breadwinners, as Rosin claims, they’re far more likely to enter minimum-wage jobs.
As Warren said in her speech last night, “I grew up in an America that invested in its kids and built a strong middle class… But for many years now, our middle class has been chipped, squeezed, and hammered.” Women may take over the breadwinning. But if they do so in minimum-wage jobs, it will be one more nail in the coffin of the American middle class. The role reversal, if it really is happening (and I have my own doubts, to be explored in the aforementioned review), is unlikely to bring about Rosin’s middle-class matriarchy. It is far more likely to be a minimum-wage one, which will mean that even more families will slip from the ranks of the middle class we so pride ourselves on.