The Half-a-Loaf Life of the Working Wife
Child care, discriminatory taxes and hidden expenses can devour 70% of a woman’s contribution to family income. So why work?
by Caroline Meyer
These are times that try women’s souls. Prodded by new social pressures to be more than just-a-housewife, yearning to explore their own potential and tempted by the promise of increased prosperity, more and more women are crowding into the work force. Many of them lead double lives. They are wives, mothers, homemakers; they are also secretaries, lawyers, teachers. A third of all working women have both husbands and children at home. They work, many of them, because they no longer feel guilty about leaving their families and going to jobs, while they do feel guilty about letting their minds and educations go to waste.
Most of them, especially those with young children, work to supplement family income, on the assumption that a second salary will make the difference between just scraping by and comparatively easy living. Yet those who analyze their finances discover that they are actually adding little — or sometimes nothing at all — to the family’s net wealth.
The shortfall begins, but doesn’t end, with wage inequality. According to the Federal Census Bureau, the median income last year for men with four or more years of college was $14,400, while women with equivalent education earned only $9,200 working full time. Even if they accept the inequality in gross pay, a couple earning those salaries will quickly discover that the special costs of a working wife make the gap between their net disposable incomes even wider.
Consider a family — husband, wife, preschool child — in which the husband earns that median $14,400, and his wife takes a job for $9,200. Her base pay is $177 a week before deductions. Statistical evidence and interviews with working wives in several parts of the country show that more than two- thirds of that $177 can be whittled away by payroll deductions, taxes and special costs.
To begin with, there is no escaping the $23 withheld from her weekly pay for federal income tax, and she typically loses about $5 to state tax. Social Security takes another $9. On the average, another $2 weekly goes toward group health and life insurance plans and her company’s retirement plan. If she does not pay union dues, disability or any others on a long list of possible payroll deductions, that leaves $138 a week in take-home pay.
Just because she takes it home does not mean that she keeps it there. Her biggest expense is child care: $25 a week. Housekeeping help costs another $15 a week. Lunches and coffee breaks: $10 a week. Bus fare: $3. Her wardrobe doubles in size, her trips to the hairdresser are more frequent — agreeable, but still expensive, changes in her way of life. Steaks, chops, frozen Chinese dinners —foods that are fast, convenient and expensive —make up a larger part of the family’s diet. They eat out once a week now instead of just on special occasions. She no longer washes her husband’s shirts but sends them to a commercial laundry. Dry-cleaning bills are higher. The family invests in appliances, like a dishwasher, that save time and trouble. A money saver, the sewing machine, falls into disuse: she hasn’t time. These incidentals, she figures, add up to $15 a week.
Subtract all the obvious and not-so-obvious costs, and the $138 take-home pay shrinks to roughly $70 a week — $3,- 640 a year. What’s more, at tax time next spring this family is in for a nasty surprise. Their earnings will be subject to federal and state income tax at a rate determined by total family income — $23,600. But her withholding has been calculated only on her $9,200 salary, and his only on his $14,400. Filing a joint income tax return proves cheapest, as it does for most married taxpayers. Even so, this couple will owe an additional $818 in federal income taxes alone. What is left of her original $9,200? Just $2,860, or about $55 a week.
That’s only the arithmetic. The problems and anxieties of a working mother exact a psychic cost that cannot be calculated in dollars and cents. The greatest of these, predictably, arises from her greatest responsibility at home: child care. Wives and mothers have rushed to work in recent years, despite an acute shortage of people and services to fill in for them at home. The ranks of working mothers with children under six swelled from 3.7 million to 4.3 million between 1965 and 1971, yet the number of full-time household workers — the baby-sitters and the cleaning women — dropped from 500,000 to 300,000.
Private enterprise has responded to the demand for day-care centers, but so far the profits in commercial babysitting have proved marginal, and the temptation to increase returns by trimming services is ever present. The actual cost of good group child care runs around $50 a week per child, a cost way out of line with what most families can afford and with what most commercial organizations can reasonably charge. Consequently, the television set has become an important daycare tool in commercial centers large and small and in nonprofit centers too. Most day care, even the expensive kind, is “custodial” rather than “developmental,” as the professionals call it. The professionals also have a name for the product turned out by some franchised commercial centers: “Kentucky fried children.”
Day care in a commercial center costs $20 and up a week per child, plus transportation, which is seldom provided free. Keeping the child home, though, can cost a parent a great deal more. Full-time household help costs
With a combined income of $25,000, Margaret and Dick Simmons of Everett, Wash., managed to save $5,000 last year. But first Margaret had to hand over $100 of her $592 monthly teaching salary to a babysitter for Megan, now 21 months old.
$100 a week in some parts of the country, plus carfare, plus lunches, plus Social Security.
Faced by all these problems, many working mothers resort to a kind of hunt-and-peck method of finding child care. A case in point is Mary Ward, a tireless and capable woman from Rumson, New Jersey, who went to work as district sales manager for the Avon cosmetics firm two years ago. At first, she lucked into good care for her preschooler; she found a highly motivated summer-vacationing college girl to look after her eleven-month-old son. The $45 a week she paid her baby-sitter was exactly half Mrs. Ward’s own weekly net pay, she remembers. “However, I knew my job had potential. It was something I loved.”
When September rolled around and her baby-sitter returned to school, “I panicked,” says Mrs. Ward. “I put ads in the paper. I put notices on the bulletin boards of the colleges.”
Noticing an unusually large collection of toys in a neighbor’s yard, Mrs. Ward stopped in—and stumbled upon a day-care facility that she now calls “the answer to all prayers.” As with most day care in the U.S., the arrangements are informal and the home is unlicensed. Mrs. Ward pays a flat fee of $26 a week, regardless of how many hours she leaves her boy with her neighbors. While it’s an improvement over the $45 she was paying a baby-sitter for in-home care of her son, $26 is still a big chunk of Mary Ward’s weekly pay. But she feels she has struck a good bargain. Her son, she knows, is in trustworthy hands, and that $26 buys her peace of mind.
Child-care costs are obviously a business expense; a working mother can no more do without baby-sitting than a mechanic can do without socket wrenches. Yet until recently, wives above the poverty line were not allowed any sort of income tax deduction. A modest boon, however, awaits them next April. Beginning with the 1972 tax year, a couple will be able to write off as much as $400 a month in child-care expenses if their adjusted gross income is $18,000 or less. If it is over $18,000, the excess reduces child-care allowances on a sliding scale. When a couple reach an adjusted gross income of $27,600 or more, they are no longer eligible for any deductions, no matter how much they lay out for child care.
Married women bringing home second incomes have become the nation’s most heavily taxed wage earners. For a long time, the single taxpayer carried a notoriously unfair share of the tax burden. In lightening the tax load on the unmarried, the Tax Reform Act of 1969 inadvertently penalized
the two-income family. A man and wife with one child and a combined income of $29,000 a year will pay $5,930 in federal income taxes if they file jointly and use the standard deduction. Filing separate returns, a man who earns $16,000 and a wife who earns $13,000 will pay $5,960 if they have one child and use the standard deduction. Suppose they were not married at all? Living together, filing separately and claiming one dependent child, they would pay combined taxes of only $4,946. Moreover, if the man qualified as an unmarried head of household by establishing that he furnished more than half the cost of supporting his child, the couple’s combined taxes would be even less: $4,746—a cash saving of $1,184 over filing jointly. While society still officially frowns upon unmarried couples having sex and children, tax law actually encourages such housekeeping arrangements.
Just as discouraging, if not as costly, is Social Security. A working wife pays the full Social Security tax, but since her coverage overlaps with her husband’s, she never receives all of the benefits she has paid for.
Taxes and child care take the biggest bite out of a woman’s paycheck, but there are countless other hidden costs, most of them job related. For example, one New York woman who went to work for the city government when her children went to school kept a detailed ledger of how much she spent on clothes. The year before she went to work, when she was still housebound with her children, the total was $300: “I led a very unchic life.” The following year she earned $8,500 and spent $1,164 of it on clothes. The first year at work meant start-up costs, so expenditures the second year ($1,100) and third year ($885) were not quite so great. In her fourth year, she spent only $672 on her wardrobe, coasting along on what she had. But last year, her fifth on the job, obsolescence and depreciation took a heavy toll. The result was a record breaker and a budget breaker: $1,207.
Another pitfall lurks in the fact that a working wife does bring home some disposable income, which can have a psychological effect on family spending. A few families bank the wife’s paycheck or earmark her earnings for a major purchase: a car, a house, a vacation. Many more succumb to the climate of spending created by added income. “There is no question that I am looser with money than I would be if I weren’t working,” says the New York woman who keeps track of her clothes spending. When she first started work she was delighted that her office was located in a shopping district. “That was all very gay. There I was shopping five days a week. I didn’t shop for myself because that’s guilt making. But I brought things back for the house,” she says.
Dana and Carolyn Gunter, a young Houston couple, know exactly where their money goes, because most of the S1,- 260 they earn together per month is doled out to creditors.
Janus Adams nets S90.75 a week as assistant to the producer on a New York film project. Her live-in babysitter costs $100 a week, but her husband, jazz drummer Max Roach, earns over $100,000 “in good years” and is glad to finance the deficit.
Just two years ago, the Gunters were both working and were free of debt. At that point, Mrs. Gunter could have quit her job as an office worker to be a full-time mother to Tina, then two and a half. Instead, they felt so flush that they went on a spending spree — all installment purchases. The time payments have proved so crippling that now she has to work, at least until their existing debts are settled. There is one compensation, at least: Mrs. Gunter admits that she prefers her career to the boredom of housework.
A working mother faces an additional occupational hazard — conscience spending. To ease subconscious guilt about her absence from the home, she may lavish gifts on her family or overpay sitters to assure herself that her youngster is getting first-rate care. A variation on this theme can be an overabundance of private instruction — piano lessons, tennis lessons, swimming lessons, dancing lessons. When parental attention is in short supply, lessons often fill the void and sometimes serve as an expensive baby-sitting service.
The one sure cure for all these ills is money — lots of it. A working wife who has broken through the success barrier has also wiped out petty worries about carfare, lunches and hairdressers. Helen Gurley Brown, paid handsomely for her advice to the unmarried as author of Sex and the Single Girl (1962) and editor of Cosmopolitan, has certainly made it as a working wife (her husband David is an independent movie producer). Although few can hope to match her income, she urges married women to get out there and hustle because a salary will give them “bargaining power” at home. “Unless you do something of your own that you get paid for and recognized for, you don’t have any social, economic or even romantic clout,” she says. “If he’s bringing home all the money, he’s just got to be in the driver’s seat.”
What money problems Mrs. Brown has are fairly special: “Do you spend $475 for one Geoffrey Beene evening dress, or do you buy two inexpensive ones and put the rest of the money away?” Much more real is the problem of seeing to it that success does not cheat her husband, that the roles are not reversed, making him, in effect, the working wife. One of the “little traditional things” she likes to do is pack for David’s business trips to the West Coast. “Here it is, two o’clock in the morning,” she says. “I have a busy day tomorrow, and here I am stuffing tissue paper into the sleeves of his blazer.”
Her celebrity as a writer and editor has placed no strain on her relationship with her husband, Mrs. Brown insists, because “he is so totally responsible for my being where I am. The idea for Sex and the Single Girl was his. He edited, guided and steered me, told me how to promote it. The format for Cosmopolitan — definitely his. In a way I was his wind-up doll, I guess, I am the one who ought to have resentments.”
The interview is interrupted by a ringing phone. Mrs. Brown doesn’t answer, but her secretary picks it up outside, popping her head into the office a few moments later to ask, “It’s Mr. Brown. Are you in?”
Like Mrs. Brown, Julia Child emphatically includes her husband Paul in her success as host of TV’s most famous cooking school and author of her best-seller, The French Chef Cookbook (1968). She stresses that she and Paul are a partnership, speaks of “our books” and “our show.” The partnership is an unqualified success. Last year Mrs. Child taped 26 programs at $500 apiece and added book royalties and a publisher’s advance that brought the sum to “six figures.” Money, obviously, is no problem. Quite the opposite. “Our requirements are not immense,” Mrs. Child explains. “We have enough to live comfortably on. What could you do with any more? At a certain point you have enough.”
As her household’s chief breadwinner, Julia Child escapes the special financial problems of wives whose incomes are merely supplementary. She makes a point of sharing credit for her success as a TV chef and author with her husband Paul, who serves as her full-time business partner.
Women like Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Child are such extreme exceptions that they only serve to emphasize the plight of others who are struggling to earn four- or five-figure incomes that are eaten away by the high cost of working. These days few people argue with women’s rights to equal pay, equal opportunity and equal taxation, but the rights simply do not apply, and no effective relief is in sight. While there is no way at present to remove the burden of the working wife, there are a few suggestions that can lighten the load:
- Consider part-time work. A part-time job can mean more flexible hours, less child care, fewer frozen dinners. Ina Torten, who is by conviction a feminist and by trade a partner in a personnel agency called Newtime, Inc., specializes in finding part-time jobs for women with school-age children. In her New York City office hangs a sign that reads: “If Clarence Darrow were alive and only able to work 9:30 to 3:15, would you hire him?” The employer who accommodates women with a shorter work week or a shorter workday is doing himself a favor, according to Ms. Torten. He is getting a “highly motivated worker” and is forced into a “true assessment of whether a job really requires a seven-hour day.” Lateness and absenteeism are so rampant, particularly among urban workers, that the five-hour workday is already the norm, she claims. With a feminist fillip, she makes the point that “tandem employment” — two people holding down one full-time job in alternating shifts on the same day — is one way of easing women into jobs without dislodging men.
- Take a paid public service job near home. Such positions, whether elective or appointive, often allow a woman to work part time close to home and family. What’s more, she may be more effective on a small community’s school board or town council than a man, for whom such work is more likely to be an after-hours second job.
- Prepare for April 15. A working couple can avoid extra taxes in the spring if they plan ahead. By applying for fewer exemptions than they are entitled to, they can bring the amount withheld from their paychecks closer to what they will eventually owe the government. Better yet, they can put the extra tax money into a savings account. While the government will not pay them interest on extra money withheld in anticipation of tax payments, a bank will.
- Understand job benefits. A working woman should keep a sharp eye out for unnecessary payroll deductions, such as those for insurance plans that duplicate benefits she already enjoys through her husband’s employment. Ellen McCracken, who lives in a New York suburb and commutes two hours every morning to her job as administrator of a private social agency in the city’s Lower East Side, carries her whole family — her husband, her two teenagers and herself — on her health insurance plan. Her husband, a freelance writer, could have covered the family through a writers’ guild he belongs to, but Mrs. McCracken’s employer pays almost all of her health insurance premium, while she pays only to insure her husband and children. Under the union plan, the McCrackens would have had to pay for every family member and would have received less comprehensive coverage.
One caveat: if a wife is working only temporarily and carrying her husband on her health insurance plan, he runs the risk of not being accepted by his group plan later when she leaves her job and he seeks protection.
These suggestions are mere palliatives, but that does not mean a working wife should submit her resignation. Indeed, when a woman sorts out her motives for taking a job, she may find that money doesn’t head the list. Her job may pay off in a currency that is nonnegotiable: self-esteem, a sense of fulfillment, a feeling of participation in the world.
Judith Lee of Evanston, Illinois, pays more than $4,400 of her $13,000- a-year base salary to the baby-sitter and cannot deduct a penny of it, since her husband’s earnings as a public relations man bring their joint income to nearly $30,000. As a management consultant, she feels impelled to invest “several hundred” dollars a year in presentable clothes. “I don’t have hair appointments, but I do have taxi expenses when I work late or when the weather is bad,” she says. Still, she wouldn’t have it any other way, and she has “no quarrel with the level of my compensation. I enjoy very much having a professional life separate and apart from my home life. I like being able to use the working part of my mind.”