Mom’s in the kitchen, all’s right with the world

Economist Paul Krugman’s vision of Paradise lost is the middle-class suburb where he grew up in the ’50s and early ’60s, notes a New York Times Magazine profile.

“All the mothers waiting to pick up the fathers at the train station in the evening,” he says, remembering. “You were in an area where there were a lot of quiet streets, and it was possible to take bike rides all over Long Island. We used to ride up to Sagamore Hill, the old Teddy Roosevelt estate.”

If service workers were unionized, Krugman says, we might return to that broad prosperity.

Jim Manzi, who grew up in a small town a few years later than Krugman, recalls the “almost unbearable sweetness of this kind of American childhood.”

The safety and freedom that Krugman describe are rare now even for the wealthiest Americans – by age 9, I would typically leave the house on a Saturday morning on my bike, tell my parents I was “going out to play,” and not return until dinner; at age 10, would go down to the ocean to swim with friends without supervision all day; and at age 11 would play flashlight tag across dozens of yards for hours after dark. And the sense of equality was real, too. Some people definitely had bigger houses and more things than others, but our lives were remarkably similar. We all went to the same schools together, played on the same teams together, and watched the same TV shows.

Krugman sees that exceptional moment in time “as primarily the product of policies like unionization, entitlements and high taxes,” writes Manzi, who sees it as the product of lucky circumstance.

Megan McArdle, who’s younger and grew up in Manhattan, sees something else: In the Good Old Days, mothers are home.

Families only need one car because Mom, who doesn’t herself work, is available to drive Dad to work every morning before she heads to the grocery store. And the kids can play unsupervised because, of course, in this neighborhood–in all neighborhoods–there is a network of constantly watching eyes. Meanwhile, the poor people and minorities are somewhere comfortably distant . . .

“The income gains of the 1950s and 1960s were real,” she writes. But the suburbs Manzi and Krugman remember were  “completely dependent on other forms of inequality: of the ability to move away from social problems, which is harder now; of generations of women whose sole destiny was the kitchen”

Steve Sailer’s Pussycat Mother had plenty of time for volunteer work, he responds. Middle-class parents could afford a home on one salary in the idyllic San Fernando Valley. There was no need to pay private-school tuition, no reason for Mom to chauffeur the kids to “high-end after-school resume fillers” so they can get into top colleges. Sailer got into UCLA without all that.

Biking all over town, playing on our own, cutting across the neighbors’ yards to get to the park, wives picking up husbands at the train station in the evening, Mom at home, except when volunteering . . . Me too.

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Presuming, for the sake of argument, that this idyllic life–for kids–was actually the result of mom remaining in the kitchen, we have a problem.
    The feminists’ presumption or accusation is that this was a horrible restriction on the lifestyle choices of women. Let’s say that, too, is true.
    But the feminists say, either explicitly or by implication, that employment is not a terrible restriction on dad’s lifestyle choices.
    Hey, man. Nothing better than a job on the line at Chrysler. Dreamed of it all my life. Don’t even take vacations, love it so much.
    Goose, gander.

  2. The whole problem is that the feminists tended to be upper class or upper middle class. Working class women always WORKED. Even if they worked from home, they took in sewing or typing, made sales calls, cleaned houses, took care of the elderly…..

    The whole “boredem of surburbia” meme came from people who were BORED. But at least in my family, the women were always busy and exhausted, at least to hear my grandmother talk. There was a lot of drudgework, but it was of the “making ends meet” variety— and they DID work outside the home, but not because they wanted to—they NEEDED the money.

    On the other hand, these same women didn’t envy their husband’s jobs, because ‘factory worker’ wasn’t glamorous either. It was all WORK.

    The ‘women need to work to be fulfilled” meme came from people who had interesting, glamorous jobs. Sure, if the choice is between cleaning up after the kids or editing a literary magazine, the magazine seems better. But for most women, the choice has always been between cleaning up your house or cleaning up someone else’s. And, if money wasn’t part of the equation, wouldn;’t you rather clean your own house and then get to put your feet up at the end of the day?

  3. MRogow says:

    I agree with Deirdre above. We were poor in my house and my mother always worked ‘outside the home’. Everyone in my family did, likewise my husband’s family. Every paycheck was needed. When my daughter was reading Virginia Woolf in high school she felt the book was just an upper class person’s lament, not really worthy of being taken so seriously. It might have been nice in the old days for some people, but there were lots more of us that were not there.

  4. the other thing is, I think people are forgetting we had less technology (and less expensive entertainment) back then.

    My mom chose to stay home with my brother and me when we were kids. I was grateful for that; a lot of my friends were latchkey kids. We would have been considered middle or upper-middle class.

    But – we didn’t have cable (four television channels). We didn’t have dvd players or even VCRs. We had a stereo with a turntable but it wasn’t until I was nearly a teenager that I even got an FM radio to have in my own room. Lots of families only had one car. We didn’t take “fancy” vacations – we went to National Parks or went to visit family. There were no cell phones, in fact, our phone belonged to the phone company. There were no answering machines, or if there were, they were far too expensive for us to afford.

    When we went to movies, it was either a Saturday matinee (cheaper) or the dollar movies that they played on my dad’s college campus (Mostly 5-10 year old Disney movies; I remember seeing the original That Darn Cat and the Herbie movies on campus)

    We rarely ate meals “out.” McDonald’s was a rare treat, as was even soda.

    A lot of things kids take for granted as a more or less everyday thing now were rare treats when I was a kid.

    Better? Worse? I don’t know. In some ways I think my growing-up times were more peaceful than they are now – I had far less exposure to the sexualized stuff that some kids see on television now, I think I stayed a kid longer.

  5. Also: the weekly trips to the library were a big deal in my family. Reading was a pretty common pastime.

  6. Although it sure helps, it doesn’t take a squad of mothers who don’t work at all to create enough “eyes on the street” so that kids can roam. It just takes enough adults around enough of the time, plus enough other kids who are not overscheduled. This is actually, in my experience, more likely to happen in lower-middle class or working class areas. My best example is my husband’s upbringing in a rural mining town. Women earned $$ in many ways, but the kids were on the loose. This persisted into the early ’90’s, when our kids joined this scenario during the summer. By contrast, in the upper-income suburbs of Chicago near where we live, the streets are empty pretty much all the time.

  7. The ‘women need to work to be fulfilled” meme came from people who had interesting, glamorous jobs.

    Amen to this! And it’s not just minimum-wage jobs that are tedious and boring. I had a lucrative office job that I hated and quit as soon as we had the financial resources to allow me to raise our children full-time.

    Doing laundry and scrubbing toilets is dull, but at least I can see the tangible benefits for my family. All the tedious stuff I did in my last paid position just went to improving my employer’s bottom line. I did have a fancy title and a decent paycheck, but taxes and daycare took a huge chunk out of the latter. What was left over simply wasn’t worth the negatives of having my kids in institutional care during their formative years…

  8. Plus, even if you spend all day in an office, you STILL need to scrub toilets, it’s just late at night when you’re exhausted!…

    I have to admit, the one time I WISH I had an office job is when my kids all have a stomach virus at once. Except, if I had an office job, I’d still be stuck at home on the vomit days. I’d just miss all the good days!

  9. Plus, even if you spend all day in an office, you STILL need to scrub toilets, it’s just late at night when you’re exhausted!…

    Or pay someone else to do it, leaving even less of one’s paycheck.

  10. Homeschooling Granny says:

    When mom was home she didn’t have a microwave. Most families had dining tables and sat together at them for at least one meal a day. Everyone looked everyone else face-to-face and talked about their day. Children learned the vocabulary of the adult world. Adults heard about what was going on in their children’s lives. Some times school work was discussed. Kids paid attention in school for the stories they could tell at the dinner table.

    The evening meal was both a learning and bonding experience. There is something innately connecting about someone’s preparing a meal for someone else.

    We’ve lost a lot when family member microwave something to eat in their room in front of one electronic device or another.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Be interesting for somebody with more economic and historical skills than I to see if the lifestyle described so nostalgically from the Fifties was actually possible on a husband’s salary due to much lower tax rates.
    Heard it was so, but you never know.

  12. Richard Aubrey, in a word, no. Tax reates were quite a bit higher in the ’50’s. See link below.

  13. I don’t know that it was the tax rates so much as the availability of cheap housing.

    The average price per square foot in constant dollars has gone from $10.33 to $89 from 1950 to 2007. Granted, it’s come down slightly since then with the recession, but nowhere close to 1950’s era levels.

    My parents bought a 950 sq. ft. 2 BR/1 BA starter home in Cambell, near San Jose, for $55k in 1977, or roughly $203k in today’s dollars. That was do-able on the $27k/yr salary my dad made (equivalent of $99.5k today). Today, that same house is worth ~$600k-$625k and would not be affordable without a 2nd income.

  14. And on top of that, the size of the average house ballooned incredibly (even before the real estate market heated up to boiling). This, while the average family size was decreasing.

  15. Mark Roulo says:

    “Tax reates were quite a bit higher in the ’50?s.”

    Not quite …

    *Federal* income tax rates *could* be quite a bit higher in the 1950s. But we are probably more interested in the total taxes paid by, say, the middle 60% of families. These would include (a) state income taxes, (b) sales taxes, (c) property taxes, and (d) FICA-ish taxes [and a bunch I’m probably forgetting].

    For California, I’m pretty sure that (a), (b) and (d) are higher than in the 1950s and (c) is lower [or at least no higher]. How this works out in total, I do not know.

    CW makes a good point that a large chunk of this is that housing was *much* cheaper (at least in California). A bunch of this was having fewer people (thus, more land per person) but also the houses were smaller (1200 square feet or so being typical in the 1950s, I think) and much less nice (smaller rooms, smaller windows, fewer dishwashers, …).

    A bunch of this is that people in the 1950s had less (and lower quality) material things, but did not miss them as they wouldn’t/couldn’t compare themselves to 2010.

    I suspect that more families could get by on one salary if the parents were willing to:
    (a) Get rid of cable,
    (b) Get rid of the cell phone(s),
    (c) Eat out rarely,
    (d) Have the stay at home spouse (wife) cook from scratch,
    (e) Only have one car [and buy 3 years used when getting a new one],
    (f) Live in a small unit (say a 1,200 square foot apartment),
    (g) No video games ($60/each new for the big titles?)


    In short, I think many more families *could* live a 1950s lifestyle, including one stay at home parent, if they wanted to do so. But in 2010 very few people *want* to do this if given a choice.

    Taxes are part of it for some percentage of the population.

    But a large part is also that our expectations of a “good life” are much higher than in the 1950s.

  16. BB beat me to it, but here’s another nifty link where you can see how insanely high tax rates were in the 50s.

    Crimson Wife’s also right about housing. Fewer people owned homes, mortgage rates were much higher, and mortgage interest wasn’t tax deductible (economists estimate this inflates the cost of housing by at least 15-20%, and more in well-to-do areas). The cost of higher education was a pittance compared to today.

    But it’s McCardle who gets to the heart of the matter. A large percentage of the good jobs were open to white men only, and that skewed the labor market and salaries accordingly.

  17. Stacy in NJ says:

    I would love to see a comparison of property taxes from the ’50’s and from today. I suspect in real dollar terms they are considerably higher today.

  18. Aardvark says:

    Marginal tax rates are, of course, meaningless. It is the effective tax rate.

    In the 1950s, the effective tax rate for a family of four with the median income paid about 6% in Federal income taxes (Social Security was another 2%; there was no Medicare). The income tax increased to almost 12% in the Carter/Reagan years, and has dropped ever since. The last several years the rate has actually been lower than the 1950s thanks to the Bush tax cuts.

  19. Richard Aubrey says:

    I don’t know about one-for-one comparison of amenities. For example, forty years ago, you were supposed to get a car tuned up every six thousand miles. That was an expense we do not now have. They didn’t last as long and got lousy mileage.
    A modest CD player will give you what a major investment in stereo equipment with big speakers and balanced and shock-proof turntables would have provided, and cost more.
    I was born in 1945 and grew up in a suburb populated mostly by young families, most of the men being veterans. The tract houses would have been sneered at today–remember the too-precious song about ticky-tacky and they all look just the same?–but the folks in them knew what they’d have had during the Depression and were terrifically happy. Then, with fifteen year mortgages and rising real estate prices, they estabished equity rapidly and moved in ten or fifteen years to the got-it-made houses. The latter were considered the default or baseline housing by the generation that came after.
    IMO, the Depression and the war gave people the idea that planning your life, or your kid’s life, was a waste of effort. So they let the kids make their own paths without overmuch organization and supervision.

  20. Re Mark Roulo’s comment:
    My husband and I intentionally chose a lifestyle just like you laid out above, except we use prepaid cellphones (MUCH cheaper than having a plan) and live in just 1000 square feet with our three children. We decided to not have a TV and use our computer instead for copious media use. It’s possible to live very happily at a 1950s level, but I admit to feelings of embarrassment when people come by our home because of its age and size. Then I remember the people I saw bathing their children in the gutter in metro Manila (Philippines) and the cardboard boxes they used as shelter, and I feel so incredibly fortunate to have my warm home and healthy children.

  21. We get a fair bit of complaints about how it’s borderline neglectful to make our kids share rooms, have a play area in our unfinished basement (because they like to ride bikes in the winter!) live in 1,000 square feet and walk anywhere that’s less than 3/4 a mile each way (I plan to up it to a mile once they’re older.) Oh yeah, and to not eat out regularly, only get PBS with our antennae, and to take day trips to museums (where we get memberships) rather than weeklong vacations to Disney.}

    It’s interesting that our society has determined that kids NEED expensive electronics and vacations more than they NEED a parent at home. But I wonder if some of it is that people who lived through divorce and instability have swapped “need” and “luxury” because, under the old way (you need both parents, a new game system is a luxury) that would mean that they’d grown up neglected and their children were currently neglected…

  22. Keep in mind that a considerable chunk of our economy desperately relies upon people to buy the latest tech gizmos and to go on vacations and to upgrade their kitchens and all that other hot retail action. It also bears mentioning that advertising is a 300-billion-dollar-a-year business–a ridiculous 2% of our GDP is the marketplace’s nudging us to keep up with the Joneses.

    There isn’t any study that I’m aware of that shows working mothers, per se, have a negative impact on their children’s futures or society at large, and just plain common sense dictates that we’re all better off not limiting the contributions of 50% of our people (and at the end of the Krugman piece, he acknowledges as much). If there are problem areas, they are the explosive growth rates of A. single-parent families and B. dual-income families that nevertheless struggle to stay above the poverty line.