The Decline of the "Two Breadwinner" Family: How Long-Term Unemployment Threatens to Demolish the Middle Class
Keith Baudendistel counts himself lucky. The reason is convoluted. He is, after all, unemployed, having lost his factory job in East St. Louis nearly three and a half years ago.That puts him easily among the 6.1 million Americans labeled by the government as long-term unemployed. What makes Baudendistel lucky is that his wife works. And her second income, which once made the couple comfortable, is now in effect their unemployment insurance.
Born of the women’s movement and the income stagnation that started in the 1970s—soon making one income inadequate—the two-income family became a means of staying in the middle class or striving for that status. Now, one of those incomes is rapidly disappearing as more and more husbands or wives lose a job and, in a period of minimal job creation, can’t get back into the workforce. Once the unemployment benefits expire for the jobless husband or wife, the working spouse’s income then becomes the couple’s jobless pay, sustaining them, but at a lower—sometimes much lower—standard of living.
“We started out after World War II telling people that one person could support a family, and after a while that one income was not enough,” notes Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, in Washington. “Then we said that if the husband and wife both worked, they would get into the middle class. And now more and more the second person is not working.”
Keith and Rhonda Baudendistel, in their late 40s, fit this pattern. They married as teenagers twenty-nine years ago, raised three daughters (the youngest is 15) and for much of their married life, he worked on the assembly line at Cerro Flow Products, a pipe and tube manufacturer not far from the family home. His pay had risen to $17.50 an hour when the company started furloughing workers. At first there were callbacks; then in 2007 the callbacks stopped. “I look for factory work; that’s all I’ve ever done. But I can’t find any,” Baudendistel says.
The army of the unemployed, in the Great Depression, would undoubtedly have included Baudendistel. He might have ended up on a bread line, one of the expressionless faces in the bleak photographs from that era. The formal designation did not exist in those days, but like many of those forebears, Baudendistel is “long-term unemployed,” which the Labor Department defines as being out of work for at least twenty-seven weeks. The modern-day army of the long-term unemployed rose a bit in March, to 45.5 percent of the nation’s 13.5 million jobless workers. Rarely since the 1930s has the percentage been so high. Still, Baudendistel is better off than his ’30s counterparts. He at least collected a year’s worth of unemployment pay, which was nonexistent until 1935. And perhaps most important, his wife has a job, a common fallback now—and a crucial one, given that men are falling out of work more frequently than women.
Rhonda Baudendistel joined the workforce while her husband’s job seemed secure. She still works for her first employer, a company that repairs and services vending machines in a St. Louis suburb, across the Mississippi River. For a while, his pay and the $9 an hour she earned in the shipping department lifted the family’s income to more than $50,000 a year. When he lost his job, her boss allowed her to go to fifty-five hours a week from forty, with the additional fifteen at time-and-a-half pay. It meant a twelve-hour workday, including the commute, to bring home just $400 a week, after deductions, the largest of which covered the health insurance her husband once got on the job. “After Keith lost his job, I begged my boss for the overtime,” Rhonda says.
They scrape by on her meager pay, but all the extras and some of the basics are gone—the occasional night out, meat for dinner more often than pasta, a used car that is newer than the 1996 Pontiac she drives on her long commute, a warmer house in the winter. “I work the thermostat to use less fuel,” he says.
Yet for all the family’s hardship, Keith resists additional help from the government, beyond the unemployment insurance he has already exhausted, and perhaps disability pay, if he qualified for it because of a bad knee. (He hasn’t applied, preferring to use the knee, as is, in another factory job, if he can get one.) Like millions of Americans, Keith Baudendistel subscribes almost reflexively to the view—promoted by Democratic and Republican administrations and many economists—that the victim is somehow responsible for his unemployment. “The only solution is to get another job,” he says, arguing in effect that the unfilled jobs are out there and the responsibility is his to land one.
Meanwhile, Rhonda’s long working days—she leaves at around 5 am and is gone until early evening—have altered her role in the family, not to mention his. She still views him—and he views himself—as the chief provider, if not today then in the long run, when her income, they hope, will once again become secondary. Until that happens, covering just the necessities leaves roughly $5 a week for him to spend on himself; and lacking pocket money, he rarely leaves the family’s two-bedroom house. (Bunk beds in one bedroom accommodate the two daughters living at home, the youngest a high school freshman, the other attending a nearby college on full scholarship.) Rhonda manages to cook a lot, mainly because she is better at it, her husband says, but Keith does the shopping and the rest of the housework.
“He sweeps the floors, makes the beds, does the dishes, takes out the trash—the kind of stuff that helps me out,” Rhonda says. “I’m gone all day and the children are in school, so basically he’s the mom and I’m the dad. He takes the 15-year-old back and forth to school.”
When Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at the City University of New York, noticed this role reversal in data from the 1930s, she thought it was a move toward gender equality. “But because the role reversal was strongly associated with economic deprivation, it was not welcome,” Milkman says. Seventy-five years later, Keith Baudendistel certainly does not welcome it. “I want to be the head of the household again,” he says, “but until that can happen, we have to manage as best we can.”
There were more than 58 million “married-couple families” in the United States in 2007, on the eve of the recession, and in more than 30 million of those families, or 51.7 percent, the husband and wife both worked, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since then, the percentage of two-earner families in which either the husband or wife became unemployed in a given year has doubled, from roughly 1.5 percent in 2007 to 3.1 percent in 2010 for wives and 3.7 percent for husbands, according to analysis of government data by Boushey at the Center for American Progress. In 2010 alone, more than 1 million two-earner married couples were reduced to one earner. That loss helps to explain the rise in mortgage defaults and home foreclosures, and the likelihood that both will continue at an abnormally high rate well into the recovery, as the unemployed in two-earner families re-enter the workforce, in many cases not at their old wages but at jobs that pay less.
An accurate census of two-earner families would almost certainly produce more lost jobs than the published numbers, which cover only those husbands and wives who listed themselves as unemployed. There is another layer of data that count men and women (some married, some not) who are out of work but no longer searching for jobs and therefore no longer qualify as “unemployed.” In many cases, they have given up the hunt and dropped out because of the widespread reluctance of employers to hire until they are more confident that the mild upturn in the economy won’t give way to another recession. Indeed, with so many out-of-work Americans no longer trying to find a job, the labor force participation rate—the percentage of the population either employed or actively seeking work—dropped to 64.2 percent at the end of March, its lowest level in over twenty-five years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Given the stresses—particularly the stress inflicted on couples who had come to accept their two incomes as the norm—couples might be expected to be divorcing more, but the divorce rate isn’t higher. Tension and stress, yes; there is plenty of that and irreversible damage to many marriages, particularly when the husband remains out of work for a long time. But not divorce, with its promise of a plunge into poverty for husband and wife as the two go their separate ways.
The Baudendistels, in fact, say his extended unemployment has brought them closer together, and there is some academic research suggesting this is true for other couples as well. “When a husband can’t get work,” says Kerwin Charles, an economist at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, the wife “learns, or believes she learns, something about him—in particular his discipline and his ability to snap back.”
By that standard, Gordon Stevenson in Westford, Massachusetts, like Keith Baudendistel, is adjusting. A pilot, he worked for a management company that supplied crews for privately owned jet aircraft—the sort of luxury jets the chief executives of the Big Three automakers flew in to Washington to plea for a government bailout. The imagery—corporate chieftains stepping out of royal coaches holding tin cups—produced a public backlash, and in response some companies cut back on the use of corporate jets. That was in November 2008. Six months later, the fallout reached Stevenson and he lost his job.
His $100,000 salary disappeared and now, at 62, he finds his unemployment pay—$628 a week; $32,656 a year—is about to run out. Except for a couple of short stints as a pilot, he hasn’t found work in his profession, he says, mainly because too many pilots are unemployed, most of them younger than he is.
Fortunately, Stevenson’s wife, Helen, is employed, and has been for twenty-three years. She earns in the mid–five figures as the director of a music school in a Boston suburb. The Stevensons’ two grown children are successful in their professions and, if necessary, they could subsidize their parents in old age. The parents don’t want that. But their resistance comes at a price. Stevenson calculates that when the layoff came, he and his wife were five years shy of having enough saved to afford retirement. Now the savings have stopped. “That was the most significant impact of my job loss,” Stevenson says.
But not the only one. “We don’t go out to eat very often anymore,” he explains, “and we seldom travel now.” On the one recent trip they did take, to Puerto Rico, their children paid the airfare and the hotel bill, as a sixtieth-birthday present for their mother. “We wouldn’t have been able to pay for that,” their father says.
Now his concern is that his wife, too, could lose her job. “She is aware that she serves at the pleasure of a board of directors,” he says, “and she has seen music school directors who were seemingly serving with great approval from their boards being asked all of a sudden to leave.”
Her schedule is 9-to-5, but student performances, which she attends, are mostly in the evenings and on weekends. Stevenson usually doesn’t accompany her, staying in the background in his new role as “Mr. Mom,” as he puts it. “Gordon will help put lunch together for me,” Helen says, “and he helps me out to the car with all my paraphernalia—my computer and such—and when I get home he has dinner waiting.”
There is in this role reversal a significant upside in her eyes. Her husband is home, which he often wasn’t as a commercial pilot. “I tend to be open about my emotions,” she says, “and I wondered whether we would fight more than when he was employed. I asked him that, and I think we both feel that we fight less, that we are pulling together more. Our big disagreement was that he was gone so much.”
Still, Gordon Stevenson, like Keith Baudendistel, yearns to work again. “The solution is to find work,” he says, rejecting the idea of state or federal supplemental income programs as “too subject to abuse.” Without his pilot’s income, however, the Stevensons say they might sell their three-bedroom house sooner than they had intended, moving to smaller quarters. And then there are the lost conversations with other pilots. “You have a social interaction,” Stevenson says, “and you don’t get that alone at home.”
The isolation pushes him to keep up his search for a job, preferably as a pilot but if not, then at something less prestigious and lower-paying. “I have a cousin,” Stevenson says, “who was a corporate lawyer for years and was working as a lawyer for a Florida real estate firm when it went out of business. He is a well-trained, intellectually capable individual. And he couldn’t find work. So he is working as a clerk in a Home Depot. I might have to do that, too.”