Parents and the Two Income Trap

One of the dimensions of force in the education reform debate is child-care, with both parents and large employers viewing schools primarily as a way to turn children into adults with specifics skills, attitudes, and knowledge. Of the three dimensions of force (money, power, and childcare), childcare is the one with the least complex. While teachers and publishers battle each other for the chance to divert money away from children and to themselves, and while States and Districts squabble over political power, parents and large employers do not disagree about much. Both desire children to become productive members of society.

Importantly, both also suffer from a collective action problem. That is, the cost for making America’s education system world-class is high, and any individual parent or employer can opt-out by simply renting better childcare on their own. For employers this means paying slightly more for one of the competent workers, and for parents this means paying slightly more for one of the competent schools. The consequences for employers and employees of the first part of this is clear: a greater labor cost means a higher standard of living (and least in the short run) for competent workers, and greater automation and outsourcing to compensating for it, leading to a lower standard of living (at least in the short run) for those automated or outsourced out of a job.

The consequences for parents are more profound.

The K-12 education market in the United States is profoundly warped. Parents typically buy access to good schools through pay rent or mortgages in good school districts. Because the teaching profession has been lobotomized through low wages, sending children to many schools would be morally tantimount to child abuse. Bidding wars thus erupt to gain access to these good schools, in the forms of expensive mortgages and high rents. People who actually own this property (apartment managers, real estate developers, and mortgage holders) become rentiers who profit at the expense of parents trying to provide a better life for their children. (Thus, landowners are an important rentier class in the education debate, along with teachers and publishers).

This leads many parents to face what Elizabeth Warren called “the two income trap.” The bidding war for good schools, along with the breakdown of widespread sexual discrimination, encourages both men and women to work, and use the excess income to buy housing near a good school. This means that if the husband loses work for whatever reason, the wife cannot temporarily increase the family’s income by taking additional part-time work. Further, in the event of a medical emergency in the family, the wife cannot act as a “free” caregiver. In both cases, America’s two-earner encouraged by our bad schools increases the financial risks of families, and thus increases domestic violence, divorce, and economic ruin.

While the low quality of America’s teacher workforce is certainly one reason for this, others exist as well. America’s education management force is low quality as well. Further, peers matter — who a child goes to school with matters quite a lot. Parents (meaning parents who are actually engaged with and concerned for their child’s future) can reasonable expect a school to be better if fewer students from low-income households attend it. Thus, a brutal but effectve way to increase the quality of schools for many parents would be to exclude students from communities that historically are not focused on education. Brown v. Board of Education and other cases have made this policy untenable, however, leading to more low-income parents to be priced out of good schools because they now have economic competition from communities of comparative earning ability but with a broken pipeline to class mobility.

But in either case, the problems remain. And the economic stress bad schools place on parents mean that solutions that require paying teachers more — such as turning teaching into a profession — may be impractical.