Earning the big bucks
I continue to be amazed by the ongoing discussions around the disclosure that in more than 40% of US homes women are the primary breadwinners. Evangelical Christians, almost to a person, deplore this development. I’d like to remind people that there are two, or even three, distinct reasons for women being primary breadwinners.
The biggest by far is the number of single-parent homes led by women. Very few people feel that, on balance, this is a good thing. The logistics of single-parent homes creates difficulties for the parent, male or female, to be sure. These difficulties surely have consequences. But even here, not all single-parent homes are created equal and one-size-fits-all statements about them concern me. Who wants to say that a mom who takes her kids and flees an abusive father is wrong? While a happy two-parent home may be ideal, do we really think that an abusive home is better than a single-parent home?
But there are two other components to this trend. Commentators, particularly Christian ones, tend to ignore or downplay this. When they quote studies and statistics they almost always use single-parent homes as their justification, which is misleading if not morally wrong.
One other component is the homes where there is a role reversal; where the mom goes out to work and the dad takes care of the kids. While this trend is growing it is still statistically small so exact studies on implications are not definitive. Nevertheless, early data shows that, contrary to some claims, there is no evidence of catastrophic family collapse. Most negative commentary coming from Christians, including insulting ones like “man-fail,” stem from the idea that “gender roles” are pre-programmed by God and should not be violated. My warning to those making such statements is to be careful, lest the ever-increasing facts prove you wrong.
The third component, and the one most often ignored, are homes where both spouses work but the woman happens to make more, even quite a bit more. While most evangelical writers are silent on this component those that do comment tend to say that “of course” children do better when the mother stays home and nurtures them so this is wrong. I could ask why the father could not stay home and nurture them but I’ll pass on that. My real concern is that they assume that the wife working is a result of them wanting to “have it all”; to be feminist career-driven achievers. The reality however is that most two-income homes, no matter who makes more, have both working for what they consider to be urgent economic reasons. Huge numbers of homes are considered to be middle class only because both spouses work; and it today’s economy more and more we will see women earning more.
OK, so we want to be “biblical” in our understanding of this issue. So what do we do?
– Start by understanding the biblical concept of seasons. Not all homes where women earn more always were, or always will be, that way. There are layoffs, wives putting husbands through school, job opportunities and job cutbacks, sickness, separations, promotions, divorces.
– Understand that it is very hard to take actual Bible passages and apply them directly to a culture where wage-earning at all, let alone the possibility of two-income (wage) families, is common. At best we are taking what we see as principles from a very different time and adapting them to apply to modern culture. There is nothing wrong with doing this but here is the key – no matter how inspired and inerrant we believe the Bible to be, we cannot make the same claims for our applications, no matter how sure we are that we have done them well. I apologize for going bold-face there but I get so tired of seeing claims of inerrancy for things the Bible doesn’t actually say but rather for things that we think it might mean when applied to today’s world.
– Express our theological opinions with grace. I saw one commentator recently say to a working mother “I’m not judging you but it is pretty clear that children are better off when their moms are home in a nurturing role.” He really said that. Honest. He might as well have said “I’m not judging you but what you are doing is harming your children.”
– Always be skeptical when your careful Bible study reaches a conclusion you already happened to hold.
As more of these higher wage-earning moms enter the work force, and with the rates of male/female college graduates this is all but inevitable, we will soon be able to know what the trend means. Stay tuned. Or, if you’d rather, watch and pray.