ONE MOTHER has two children in college now, the other has a daughter entering college next fall. One has just gone back to work, the other has been working for years. Both are in their forties, both have four children, both have husbands who work for the government and earn $50,000 a year or more. As a result of the wives' salaries, the family incomes are close $70,000 a year. The wives aren't working for the fun of it. They are working so they can make ends meet.
And still, they are cutting corners. "There are a lot of major repairs that need to be done on the house and they're just not getting done," says one. "The fence may never get fixed. A number of times in the past four or five months I've wanted to purchase an item of clothing and I've not done so.
"We've done no interior decorating and no exterior decorating. My husband keeps yelling for beef and he's not getting it. If I wasn't working, I don't know what in the world we'd do. The children wouldn't be going to college, I guess."
The family's secondhand station wagon was recently totaled by a bus. It's been replaced by a 1974 Datsun 210, the first time the family of six has been without a station wagon. "I just decided I couldn't afford gasoline for a big heavy American car," says the mother. "We've decided if all of us have to go some place at the same time, we'll take two cars or rent a car or some of us will drive and others will fly.
"When you think about how the higher income families are feeling the crunch, you wonder how on earth lower income families are coping."
The other woman's family income was $65,000 last year and will be $70,000 or more this year. She serves a lot of macaroni and cheese and hamburgers. Never steak. Wine hasn't been in the house since Christmas. She has bought new clothes for daughters, not for herself. "You put them on the charge and hope you can pay for them the next month." She has told her children they can no longer make long-distance phone calls and is limiting the use of the family car to try to run it on $50 a month.
One family has a cabin in West Virginia, the other a vacation site in North Carolina. Both were purchased Before Inflation. Both women now curse the purchases.
The woman with two children in college has a relatively low $300 a month mortgage on her Fairfax County home but the family is paying $16,000 a year in college costs. "It's been popping through my mind that maybe my children shouldn't attend colleges that cost an arm and a leg, which is something I never thought I'd compromise on. I always thought that what they needed and wanted in terms of higher education would be a top priority."
These couples are making more money than they ever thought they would. For a while, it looked like they had attained the basic middle-class standards of the good life - a four-bedroom home, nice food, reliable transportation, new clothes, vacations and good educations for their children. But there are no fancy vacations, no fur coats, no big savings accounts, and there are no assurances that they will be able to continue provinding for their children the way they had always hoped to do. Inflation is finally hurting the high two-income family, just it hit the one-income family three and four years ago, and it is threatening some of the most cherished aspirations of the middle class.
Dr. Murray Bowen, head of the Georgetown Family Center, says that inflation is the single greatest source of stress now on family life. "My impression is that the total societal problem is getting bigger and bigger."
People are worried about the present and scared about the future. We know that economists who had all the answers about curbing inflation a few years ago aren't so confident that they have the answers any more. They are still trying the old policies of tightening money in order to create a slowdown, hoping to achieve a higher unemployment and lower prices. But they don't seem so sure of these policies any more. They haven't worked yet.
Some economists are now looking towards new answers. They are saying that federal policy should try to increase productivity so it will keep pace with wages - the equation that creates zero inflation. Some are saying the answer lies in federal policies that revitalize small businesses. They are saying, in other words, that there are solutions to the problem.
But a public that looks to the government for solutions is finding an administration that can't even define the problem clearly for the public. we hear administration economists talking in alphabet soup about CPIs and GNPs and price-watch programs and telling us that beef is going to continue soaring, and refusing to put on controls and befuddling us with jargon and predictions we know won't come true.
Once, this administration showed us it was capable of defining and resolving a tough problem. The Middle East treaty Carter engineered was a triumph of single-minded determination. But the administration is showing none of that focus, that energy, that angry resolve in coping with inflation.
And people aren't talking about the Middle East treaty any more. That was breakfast reading for a couple of days. Now they are back to complaining about inflation. They are feeling depressed. There is a bleak certainty that the administration can't handle this one.
People with one income who three or four years ago were saying they had to cut corners now are saying they simply can't make it. Inflation has penetrated the fabric of family life at every level. Single income familes and high two-income families - couples in their 40s who married in an age when it was still acceptable to have three, four and five children - are now deciding that they cannot afford to give them the college education they had wanted to. They are deciding that they cannot afford the most cherished legacy they as parents could pass on to their children.
That's the kind of anguishing decision that will make people forget peace in the Middle East.