I've grown weary of reading about the two-worker family as some sort of New Elite with a Culsinart for every room and a cruise for every February.
I've even grown weary of hearing some economists exercise their social conscience in public by worrying about whether these couples are responsible for a growing gap between the rich and the poor.
It seems to me that there is a rather subtle and updated version of Blame the Working Wife going on. Long accused of every social ill from juvenile delinquency to male impotence, she is now being held responsible for the class structure of America. And never mind that that same class structure kept her at the bottom to these 200 years.
The New Elite is in large part a fantasy created by people who do not know the difference between gross income and net income. They are people who tend to overlook such leveling facts as the graduated income tax and the marriage tax - not to mention child care and inflation
Few of the working couples I know raise polo ponies. They do not consider college tuition or mortgage payment to be elitist activities. They work for solvency, security and self-esteem (in that order). The motivation to work among husbands and wives is very much the same.
But even those couples who are genuinely and jointly members of the working upper middle class don't deserve to be singled out for blame. It's true that highly paid people tend to marry each other more often whether they are government administrators, corporate executives or lawyers. people have, I suppose, usually married along group lines of one sort or another.
But previously women were conveniently irrelevant in terms of the economy. They were democratically unpaid, and equally "worthless" to the family checking account.
Now, however, we are warned by economists like Lester Thurow in publications no less capitlaistic than The Wall Street Journal that "if males who earn high incomes are married to women who could earn high incomes in a perfectly fair and liberated world, the women's liberation will make the distribution of income more inequal."
It is true that adding a woman's high income to a man's could further solidify the class structure. Yet I find myself suspicious of the undertone of these arguments. It seems to find the working wife guilty of the evils of capitalism when she's just had her first bite of the fruit. I don't think it's a coincidence that the family with two incomes totaling as high as $50,000 is considered a serious problem, while the family with one worker earning $50,000 is considered a success story.
As a whole we seem to value economic incentive, individual achievement, upward mobility and all the rest. We envy and respect (more than we resent) the members of the work-their-way-up class, but on the other hand we have a vision of a nation in which the gap between the rich and poor shouldn't gape at us.
I'm afraid that the working couple is the latest convenient scapegoat for our ambivalence about our class issues. By blaming working wives in particular, people are free to lament inequality while supporting the idea that an individual (at least the male) can freely rise to riches.
If it sounds complicated and conflicted, it is. After all, we are concerned about the inequality of family incomes, but more uncomfortable with the idea of family income ceilings or a radical redistribution of wealth. We are genuinely worried about jobs, but more likely to criticize two-workers couples than support full employment.
The so-called New Elite is, I'm afraid, an easy target. It distracts attention from the Old Elite - the real elite - and attracts the anger of those in the worst economic stress.
Still, I have a feeling that the blame-the-working-wife game isn't going to play as well as it has in the past. There are too many working couples and too much family need. Women have finally developed some resistance to the sirens of guilt. They are not about to return home in the name of what John Kennedy Galbraith called "convenient social virtue."
This time the problems of the economic system aren't going to be hidden by manipulating the employment of women, and these working couples may force us all to look long and hard at our own ambivalence. Maybe in that sense they are the New Elite.