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The Parent Trap

Author: Karen Kornbluh, Senior Fellow for Digital Policy
January/February 2003
Atlantic Monthly


The American family changed dramatically over the last decades of the twentieth century. In the postwar years up to the early 1970s a single breadwinner—working forty hours a week, often for the same employer, until retirement—generally earned enough to support children and a spouse. Today fully 70 percent of families with children are headed by two working parents or by an unmarried working parent. The traditional family—one breadwinner and one homemaker—has been replaced by the "juggler family," and American parents have twenty-two fewer hours a week to spend with their kids than they did in 1969. As a result, millions of children are left in unlicensed day care or at home with the TV as a babysitter.

Yet the nation clings to the ideal of the 1950s family; many of our policies for and cultural attitudes toward families are relics of a time when Father worked and Mother was home to mind the children. Every time a working parent has to risk a job to take a sick child to the doctor, and every time parents have to leave their children home alone or entrust them to inadequate supervision, families are paying the price for our outdated policies.

The 1950s family is not coming back anytime soon, however, in part because the economic conditions that supported it no longer exist. Starting in the 1970s de-industrialization, corporate restructuring, and globalization led to stagnating wages and greater economic insecurity. Many women went to work to help make ends meet. Indeed, conservatives who lament that feminism undermined the traditional family model overlook the fact that the changing economic environment made that model financially impossible for most American families.

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