When Poor Women "Opt Out"

If there's one thing the wives and husbands profiled in The New York Times magazine's opt-out generation cover story can agree on, it's that someone needs to pick up the house and get dinner on the table.

And while two of those wives mention having hired someone to help with domestic labor, Judith Warner's reporting shows that this work largely falls to the women themselves — the wives and moms who had made good money (one's salary was $500,000 at her peak) at careers in corporate sales and network news production, and then left to give their full attention to their families. 

It's no surprise that the desire to have well-supported children and a clean home (if not the will to make it happen) is gender-neutral, nor should it be a shocker that people across the class continuum want the same thing.

study released in July by the Brookings Institution found that nearly 40 percent of women who head households that have an average annual income of $14,000 — households in the bottom third of US income distribution — said they don't work because they need to take care of their home or family. In fact, this was the reason poor women gave most frequently for not working, followed by a fifth of those surveyed who said they couldn't find work. (Poor men said they weren't employed for different  reasons. Nearly a third said their job searches had been unsuccessful, followed by just over a fifth who said they were ill or disabled.)

Poor women's concerns get a nod, albeit parenthetically, in the Times story. Of the wealthier women who are her article's focus, Warner writes of their choice a decade ago, "They were a small demographic to be sure (another, larger, group who left the work force at that time — poor mothers who couldn’t afford child care — went without notice), but they garnered a great deal of media attention." Of the story's nearly 6,500 words, poor and low-income women’s lives get 21.

But poor mothers are at the center of Brookings' 40-page report, titled "Strategies for Assisting Low-Income Families." It found that low-income households — those in that bottom third — are disproportionately headed by people who are women, of color and under the age of 40. The researchers also explored possible ways to improve these families' lives and zeroed in on the effects of creating more jobs, increasing minimum wage to $9 and getting high school diplomas into more people's hands.

Turns out that none of these solutions measure up to the marriage cure, according to the researchers. Finding partners for low-income single mothers — or "strengthening families" as they put it — emerges as the most promising long-run strategy for raising low-income household earnings. Pair a single mom with an age-, race- and education-appropriate man and that family’s income shoots up by about a third… from $8,700 to $11,500. Not exactly hitting the jackpot. It’s also worth noting that this estimate depends, Brookings tells us, on no change in "work effort" on the part of the man or woman. So no opting out for married women in this thought experiment. 

One relevant solution not explored in the report but revived recently elsewhere, in publications ranging from Jacobin to the New York Times, is that people be paid for housework. Selma James is the thinker credited for advancing the idea, which she talked about during an interview with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman last year. In it, James recalls the conversation with her Marxist study group that led her to her eureka moment:

"I realized that they had never understood that women produce the whole labor force and that that work is not acknowledged and not even considered as work... And so, we then, you know, talked about the unwaged work that women were doing. That is, you got some payment, you got your food and board, if you were a housewife, but you didn't have the autonomy of money, which ensured that everybody knew you were working and which gave you the independence of having money of your own."

Pay for domestic labor (through a government program, as James suggested) could be a solution for both poor women and those profiled in the Times piece. The low-income heads of household would get the resources they need without having to pair up with men the Brookings researchers believe they're suited to. And the wealthy women may find an antidote to their ennui, or at least to their husbands' sense that the work they do in the home has no to low value.

Tags: domestic labor, economy, families, gender, parenting, poverty

    • Dani McClain
    • Dani McClain is an Oakland-based journalist covering reproductive rights and sexuality.

      She reported on education while on staff at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and covered breaking news for the Miami Herald's metro desk. Her writing has appeared in outlets including The Root, Loop21, AlterNet, On the Issues, and ...

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