Recently, reader Felicity Fonseca sent a letter to the editor of The Nation in response to Katha Pollitt’s Women on Top article claiming that “having two parents/members of the household working full-time spells disaster for the planet.” She further asserts that the recession – during which we all had friends, family, colleagues, or neighbors who lost their jobs – has “done more to decrease our carbon emissions than all the resource-consuming alternatives.” I’m sure that all the people who lost their jobs, and some their homes, will be gratified to know that their misery has benefitted our planet. Send out a memo to all the businesses with energy reduction policies in place to never mind those, the answer is for the half of all dual income households in the US to quit their jobs, stay home, grow their own food and hang their laundry.
I can appreciate Fonseca’s commitment to the environment, especially if she has the financial means to practice what she preaches. Really, good for her. But, wake up. The 2010 Census reports that the number of people in poverty in 2009 (43.6 million) is the highest number in the 51 years that this data has been published. The rate of two-parent, single income households has been steadily declining for decades for the simple reason that most families can’t afford to live on one income, and it’s not because they are out taking expensive vacations or buying expensive clothes and electronics.
Although Fonseca is determined to paint all dual income families with the same irresponsible, materialistic, wasteful brush (“As Americans, a lot of us pay to work, contributing to credit card debt, stress, bad food choices and climate change,”) she might want to look up from her tomato patch and notice that there is no shortage of financial challenges facing families today. Many responsible, environmentally-conscious families need two incomes to pay for necessities including health care, education, college tuition, retirement (many of us watched our carefully saved money disappear and wished we gone on the expensive vacation instead), and housing (the value of which has plummeted), along with other expenses. And that’s not taking into account the elevated cost of organic food, energy-efficient appliances, hybrid cars, and other conservation efforts. And how can single-income families become a part of this solution? Since most can’t stay home, are they just destined to always be part of the wasteful, energy-guzzling, climbing credit card debt, and poor nutrition problem?
Although I think Fonseca’s claim that you have to quit your job to conserve energy, spend money responsibly, and feed your family healthy food (these stay-at-homers don’t drive anywhere at all during the day? they don’t use heat/air conditioning that would be off if the house were empty?) is going way too far, let’s consider for a minute that this is the solution to our carbon problem. Imagine that as a nation, we said, “This is a great idea! Why didn’t we stay at home in the first place?” and there was a mass exodus of millions of workers from our workforce. What then?
Well, while we were enjoying our (short-lived) fresh air and growing our own vegetables, we had better hope that we don’t cut ourselves. The line at the emergency room might be extra long with the shortage of health care workers. Also, we’ll need to home-school our children after the schools close and hope that they learn enough to get a spot in the few secondary education institutions that are still staffed when it’s time to go. Of course we won’t be watching TV, but if our toilet backs up we might have to wait a while until someone can show up to fix it. People who depend on non-profit organizations for services or aid, well, I guess many of them will be out of luck. Even without a huge portion of our workforce opting out now, the US is facing a labor shortage later this decade as more and more baby boomers retire. So corporations will simply be forced to outsource millions more jobs overseas where those residents will have to drive to and fro, feed their children unhealthy food, buy more things and toil in energy-inefficient workplaces pumping just as much, or more, carbon into the atmosphere we all share anyway.
If people want to be stay-at-home parents, and can afford to dedicate their lives to living sustainably – more power to them, and congratulations. However, I agree with Grist blogger Lisa Hymas that Fonseca’s attitude will only deter people from energy conservation and the sustainable food movement. I believe the majority of two-parent households who need two incomes to provide for their family or even just think their jobs make a difference in other people’s lives, can still work, conserve energy, feed their families healthy food and live responsibly. And, more importantly, they can teach their children to do the same.