Cooking the Books: The Wages Trap

In June we commented on a claim made by novelist Fay Weldon that women going out to work had halved the male wage (which she mistakenly blamed on feminism). We noted that, while this was a wild exaggeration, once married women going out to work became the norm this was bound to have some effect on male wages. Married women bringing in an income would mean that employers would no longer need to include in a man’s wages an element to cover maintaining a wife at home.

Under the headline ‘Single-earner families sliding into poverty as wages stagnate’, the Times (10 July) reported on a study which lent some substance to this:

‘The income of families with stay-at-home mothers is no higher than it was 15 years ago, with half now in relative poverty, new research reveals today. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the incomes of two-earner families were 10 per cent higher than in 2002-03 but those where only the father worked had stagnated. It said that the discrepancy was due to the disproportionate increase in women’s wages while men’s wages had barely risen. Over the past 20 years earnings of working fathers have been growing at 0.3 per cent a year on average but mothers’ earnings have grown by more than 2 per cent a year.’

Over this period, then, male wages, irrespective of whether the man’s wife was working or not, stagnated. This suggests that the reason will have been that employers no longer needed to pay to maintain a wife as she was earning her own income. This would not come about by the male wage being directly reduced but by it not increasing as they otherwise would. With a wage-working wife the total family income goes up (though there are the extra costs of paying for child-minding) even if the part brought by the man doesn’t. On the other hand, men – and their families – whose wife was, contrary to the norm, not working for a wage suffer. In fact, according to the study, had it not been for the subsidy to employers that tax credits represent then their standard of living would have actually fallen:

‘Researchers said that the only reason single-earner family incomes had grown at all since the mid-1990s was that benefit and tax credit payments to this group had doubled in the same period. Without this the average earnings of a working father in a single-earner couple were 6 per cent lower in real terms than in 1994-95.’

This illustrates the same point that if workers get an income from some other source – for instance, because their wife is working or because the state is paying them something – then the employer is relieved of paying this element of the cost to workers of reproducing their labour-power. Women staying at home do of course work – quite a bit – but they are not bringing in an income. If they were paid for this work, as the ‘Wages for Housework’ campaigners want, this would have the same effect as married women getting a wage from an employer.

What capitalism giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other.

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