TWO-INCOME TRAP

MORTGAGING THE FUTURE FOR THE KIDS

They say that when looking for a new home, the three rules are “location, location, location.” But Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren believes that should be changed to “schools, schools, schools.”

In their new book, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke, Professor Warren and her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi set out to explain why the “people who consistently rank in the worst financial trouble are united by one surprising characteristic. They are parents with children at home.”

According to their research, even though today’s two-income families earn 75 percent more than their single-income counterparts did a generation ago, they actually have less to spend. And it’s not because these families are buying vacation homes or wide-screen TVs. It’s because in many cases they must mortgage the future to purchase what they want most: good schools for their kids. In fact, the authors found school quality to be the most influential factor affecting housing prices. “Bad schools impose indirect — but huge — costs on millions of middle-class families. In their desperate rush to save their children from failing schools, families are literally spending themselves into bankruptcy.”

Although today the majority of mothers work outside the home, only a generation ago, the authors remind us, that wasn’t the case. When mothers did work, their income was for “extras,” and not for “necessities” like housing. But as families moved to the suburbs in search of safe streets and successful schools, the resulting “bidding war” created a situation where Mom’s income was no longer a “luxury,” but a necessity.

“Schools in middle-class neighborhoods may be labeled ‘public,'” say the authors, “but parents have paid for tuition by purchasing a $175,000 home within a carefully selected school district.”

Freeing parents from this trap begins with giving parents a choice. The authors’ recommendation is a fully funded voucher system, that would enable parents of children in poorly performing schools to send their kids to the school of their choice.

Opponents argue that vouchers drain needed funds away from the public schools. So Warren and Tyagi suggest another school choice alternative: that is, a voucher plan that would still give parents a choice, but keep the tax dollars inside the public school system. Under their plan, which mirrors successful magnet school programs, parents would choose from among the public schools in a given area. This would prevent families from having to make the choice between a good school and an affordable home. They could have both.

The authors conclude, “By selecting where to send their children (and where to spend their vouchers), parents would take control over schools’ tax dollars, making them the de facto owners of those schools . . . Parents’ competitive energies could be channeled toward signing up early or improving their children’s qualifications for a certain school, not bankrupting themselves to buy homes they cannot afford.” And schools would be competing for students — raising school standards significantly.

Of course, the significance of this proposal is that it comes, not from the “big, bad Religious Right” that always talks about vouchers, but from a straight-thinking Harvard law professor. Makes good sense to me.

For further reading and information:

Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke (Basic Books, 2003).

Visit No Excuses for more information on educational choice in low-income communities.

Maryanne Mary Buechner, “Parent Trap,” Time, 15 September 2003.

Marilyn Gardner, “Two incomes, more debt?” Christian Science Monitor, 17 September 2003.

Listen to an interview with Elizabeth Warren on NPR’s All Things Considered. Read a transcript here(Adobe Acrobat Reader required).

James Surowiecki, “Leave No Parent Behind,” New Yorker, 11 August 2003.

Read more articles about The Two-Income Trap here.

Michael Lind, “Are We Still a Middle-Class Nation?” Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2004.

BreakPoint Commentary No. 040102, “Life beyond the Cubicle: Where Do Our Priorities Lie?

Brian Robertson, There’s No Place Like Word: How Business, Government, and Our Obsession with Work Have Driven Parents from Home (Spence, 2000).


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