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Two-Income Trap

How can a public education system actually create bankruptcies among families with children? When its failure causes housing prices to rise. This is one of the hidden and insidious costs of public education.

There's a new book, "The Two-Income Trap", that's been getting a lot of media coverage lately.

I haven't read the book, but found a substantial excerpt online. The book argues that a growing proportion of bankruptcies are caused by nondiscretionary spending like mortgage payments, not by too much discretionary spending:

If two-income families had saved the second paycheck, they would have built a different kind of safety net — the kind that comes from having plenty of money in the bank. But families didn't save that money. Even as millions of mothers marched into the workforce, savings declined, and not, as we will show, because families were frittering away their paychecks on toys for themselves or their children.

Instead, families were swept up in a bidding war, competing furiously with one another for their most important possession: a house in a decent school district. As confidence in the school system crumbled, the bidding war for family housing intensified, and parents soon found themselves bidding up the price for other opportunities for their kids, such as a slot in a decent preschool or admission to a good college. Mom's extra income fit in perfectly, coming at just the right time to give each family extra ammunition to compete in the bidding wars — and to drive the prices even higher for the things they all wanted.

The average two-income family earns far more today than did the single-breadwinner family of a generation ago. And yet, once they have paid the mortgage, the car payments, the taxes, the health insurance, and the day-care bills, today's dual-income families have less discretionary income — and less money to put away for a rainy day — than the single-income family of a generation ago. And so the Two-Income Trap has been neatly sprung. Mothers now work two jobs, at home and at the office. And yet they have less cash on hand. Mom's paycheck has been pumped directly into the basic costs of keeping the children in the middle class.

A quick data check over at economagic yields this chart:

Median Housing Prices vs. CPI

Sure enough, the overall trend is for housing prices to rise faster than general prices. (The chart I'd really like to see is of mortgage payments vs. CPI, but I don't know if they have that data. I can't find it, at least.)

Wouldn't higher prices be offset by more construction? Sure, in areas that are still able to grow. However, once a "good" school district is enclosed by other districts, people can only get in by bidding up the price of housing or by increasing the population density, and I doubt the latter is prevalent.

(I don't think this is a zero-sum situation where you'd expect decreased prices in "bad" districts due to favoring "good" districts. The research in "The Two-Income Trap" suggests that people have increased their total spending on housing because they're actually buying two things — a house and a "good" school district. "Bad" districts are free.)

Would school vouchers ease this trend by giving parents flexibility over what school their children attend? Sure, it would help a little, by diffusing what it means to live in a "good" district. (However, I'm extremely skeptical that vouchers would improve the overall quality of education.)

What would help the most is radical privatization of the school system, which would improve its quality everywhere and cancel the motivation behind the housing bidding wars.

It's prudent to mention that I have no idea whether the authors of "The Two-Income Trap" support privatizing education or to what extent they blame the public education system for the phenomenon they wrote about.

Tiny Island