Families Matter

I'm late coming to this, but Mark Thoma responded to my earlier comments on Jacob Hacker's thesis about rising income volatility, and then Reihan responded to Thoma here.

As Reihan says, I think that Thoma is taking a somewhat narrow view of what counts as the results of the Sexual Revolution. First, he writes that "the most likely explanations for increasing income volatility are quite different from the 'policy from liberals caused more family breakups, which in turn caused increased income volatility' explanation we are hearing from conservatives." (Actually, I wouldn't say that "policy from liberals" was the main reason behind the increase in family instability since the 1960s, only that some liberal policies exacerbated the problem.) Then he lists those "most likely explanations," and here are his first three:

1. Families rely on two incomes now, so when one worker leaves the workforce, income drops. Likewise, there’s no potential second earner to bump up his/her hours when earnings/hours of the prime worker drop.

2. There are more single individuals. This group has always had higher income volatility.

3. Government taxes and benefits do less to cushion income shocks than they once did.

Er, yes, and numbers one and two are partially the consequences of ... the Sexual Revolution, no? Women move in and out of the workforce more than they used to, creating more volatility; people delay marriage longer than they used to, creating more volatility; women are more likely to have children while they're single, creating more volatility. Of these three trends, it seems to me that policymakers should ignore the second - income volatility among metropolitan singletons is hardly a pressing issue - while doing more to help parents who want to take time off to raise their kids (rather than just subsidizing daycare), and more, as well, to encourage people to get and stay married.

Reihan and I proposed some possible steps in our Party of Sam's Club essay, which I won't bore you by rehashing here. I would suggest, though, that this shouldn't be cast as a debate about whether we're going to roll back the Sexual Revolution by government fiat; obviously we aren't. It should be a debate about how to deal with the landscape we face now - a debate, for instance, over whether we should attack the instability in working-class life by simply funneling more money to Americans when they hit a moment of crisis (as, say, an expanded wage insurance program would do), or whether we should seek policies that sharpen the incentives to form stable families, so that Americans need less government help when the crisis arrives, and their children need still less, and so on.

And yes, I'm aware that liberals more or less have the floor to themselves right now in this debate, because conservatives don't want to talk about anything except cutting pork and fighting terror these days. But the election season is young ...

Update: Just to clarify, when I said "of these three trends" above, I meant the three trends I mentioned in the preceding sentence, not the three trends Thoma mentions in the preceding quotation. Sorry for the sloppy writing ...