In The Two Income Trap, not-yet-Senator Elizabeth Warren and her daughter examine the results of a detailed study of bankruptcy in America and highlight why families still can’t make ends meet, in a society where more often than not, both parents are working.
Wait, did I lose you? I promise, it’s not a snooze-fest. And if you aren’t into liberal senators, this book was written in the early 2000’s, before the 2008/2009 bubble burst and well before Warren ran for office.
The book is truly easy to read, aside from the fact that it made me so angry. The authors describe the research sample they used to come to their conclusions, which is expounded upon with some thick citations in an appendix along with copious notes for each and every page.
To begin the narrative, the authors describe case studies of middle-class couples in different eras. They name the couples, describe their lifestyles and their homes and detail their monthly expenses, from the mortgage to insurance to vehicles.
Once we get a feel for the families and their lives, the authors introduce an event which affects the income of the family, such as a temporary inability to work for health reasons, or a layoff. From there, we can see the impact on each family, as their financial buffer is eroded more quickly than you’d ever believe, based on the family’s status in the middle class.
The basic underlying theme is this: if a family’s budget is based entirely on both parents working, that family is living on the edge should one income suddenly go away.
This concept makes sense, intuitively, but couples in America often follow a pattern, as the authors explain: buy a nice house in the suburbs, in a good school district, and put the kids in that great school. Those nice houses typically have a mortgage that requires two incomes. In other words, we have priced ourselves out of the suburbs, because we want what’s best for our kids — beginning with a good education from a nice suburban school district.
The authors explore the budgets of their sample families, from mortgage and utilities to expenses such as dining out, school sports fees, electronics purchases and things that could be considered frivolities. They explore common myths about debt, including overconsumption (that modern families frequently buy luxury items they cannot afford and that’s what causes them to go into bankruptcy) as well as debtors being “immoral” and not caring about their bankruptcies (the incorrect concept that people spend their way into debt, declare bankruptcy without a care in the world, and then spend their way into debt again, abusing bankruptcy laws).
In addition to busting myths about debt, the authors take the time to explain bankruptcy law in easy to understand terminology. As a law professor at Harvard, Elizabeth Warren specialized in bankruptcy law and this book helps to illustrate the wide range of her knowledge on the subject. She explains how single mothers especially fall into danger of declaring bankruptcy, and that even with the recent strengthening of child support laws around the country, those payments alone are insufficient to provide as much as a second parent’s income to the children.
_The Two Income Trap _does a phenomenal job explaining bankruptcy, debt, and the way the U.S. economy has put families at a significant disadvantage. The authors use the final chapter of the book to give what is called a “Financial Fire Drill” — the ability for the reader to assess the state of their finances and see if any adjustments can be made in order to make them more secure about bankruptcy.
Warren also makes a case that sounds very familiar to those following the 2020 presidential race: one for universal child care. The cost of child care impacts single parents and two-parent families alike, and making it free for all parents can help relieve the burden for all working parents.
Give this book a shot, if only to understand that the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is not enough to solve the problems our society has created for modern day families. It will open your eyes, no matter your party affiliation.