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Women’s Wages Can No Longer Rescue the American Family

For the past forty years American men’s incomes have stagnated.  The US economy has doubled in real per capita terms since 1973, but the median male wage income has fallen by 7.5%.  Wages for young men age 25-34 have fallen even further, by 18.7%.  While marriage once meant that a couple could survive on one income, today two incomes are essential for all but the super-rich.  Women have come to the rescue of the American family.

Women’s incomes have risen a whopping 73.7% since 1973 as the percentage of women with children who work has risen from 47% to 72%.  Even among women who work full-time, the median wage income has risen from $28,485 in 1973 to $35,574 in 2009 (adjusted for inflation).  The combination of more women going to work and working women earning more than they used to has kept the American family afloat.  As a result of women’s work, US median family income has risen modestly (up 15.6%) instead of declining over the past 40 years.

The problem is that this trick won’t work in the future.  Women’s wages are no longer rising, and they’re no longer catching up with men’s.  In fact, the data suggest they never did catch up.  Among women working in occupations that have always been female-dominated, wages have fallen 4.5% since 1973 — and contrary to popular perceptions, the number of young women choosing careers in historically female-dominated professions is increasing, not decreasing.

The great female cash infusion is now over.

What’s more, women’s labor force participation maxed out in 2000 and hasn’t budged since.  Female labor force participation in the United States is already much higher than in Europe and the rest of the developed world, a full seven percentage points higher than in the European Union.  There is little likelihood that American women will be able to continue to bail out the American family by working more.

The great female cash infusion is now over.  What next then for the American family?  It’s hard to say.  Men’s wages are falling.  Women’s wages have stopped rising.  Everyone who is likely to work is already working — or looking for work.  Unless children start going back to work in the coalmines, things look bad for the American family.  The only way out is to raise wages for everyone, men as well as women.  The alternative is a decline even worse than we’ve experienced so far.

Neither Presidential candidate is talking about measures to raise wages.  Tax cuts, yes.  Wage increases, no.  There are ways to raise wages.  The government can raise the minimum wage with a simple act of Congress.  Governments can stop trying to break unions and instead promote unionization.  Government can lead by example, raising wages for federal workers at a pace higher than inflation.  It can be done.

It can be done, and it should be done.  How long can we accept a 1973 wage structure?  Isn’t forty years more than enough?  The economy has doubled.  Wages should have doubled — or more.  The fact that they haven’t is an indictment of our governments and our leaders.  You can’t blame private companies for not raising wages.  You can blame the people who are supposed to work for us: our governments.

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