The idealized image of the United States family consisted of an employed husband and a wife who stayed home and took care of the children. Because of changing economic and social conditions, a single income is no longer sufficient for most families.


    The labor-force participation rate refers to the percentage of workers in a particular group who are employed or who are actively seeking employment. At the beginning of the twentieth century, only 20 percent of women aged 14 and older were in the labor force, compared with approximately 86 percent of men in that category. Comparable rates today are 59.8 percent for women and 75 percent of men 16 years of age or older. Historically, labor-force participation rates varied by race as well as by gender and marital status.

    1. Reasons Women Work.

      The majority of women (56 percent) work for the same reasons as men work, to support themselves or their families. Twenty-one percent work to bring in extra money for their families. Women today are better educated, have fewer children, and live longer. Between 1991 and 1992, 5.5 million workers lost jobs because their plant or company closed or moved. These jobs have been replaced by lower-paying service jobs. There was a demand for women to fill the jobs in the service sector such as teaching, health care, social services, government, and real estate. The women's movement also enhanced employment opportunities for women and people of color. Additionally, it is now socially acceptable for women to work outside the home.


    The rapid entrance into the labor force of married women with children has altered family life in many ways.

    1. Traditional Nuclear Families.

      The nuclear family structure currently represents only 7 percent of all households in the United States. The role of "home production worker" (housewife/househusband) has costs and benefits. A 1995 study found that 21 percent of the 460 men and 31 percent of the more than 1500 women surveyed said they would prefer to stay at home at least while their children were young. Among the disadvantages of the home production role are the repetitive and sometimes boring nature of the activities such as cleaning and doing laundry and overall social devaluation of housework.

    2. The Two-Person Career.

      Is a variation of the nuclear family where the wife assists in her husband's career (entertaining, attending company events, etc.). These are duties a husband is rarely expected to perform for a woman who works. The two-person career marriage, like all others, has advantages and disadvantages.

    3. Dual-Earner Families.

      Dual-earner families are not new, however, they do not all follow the same patterns. Dual-career couples contain two highly committed workers. Dual-earner households are involved in paid work, but one or both view the work only as paid employment.

    4. Commuter Marriages.

      Today many commuter marriages develop because both spouses pursue careers but cannot find suitable jobs for each spouse in the same location. They are generally more stressful for younger couples.


    Much of the research conducted in the past on the impact of work on family life has been sex-segregated, based on the assumption that work has different meaning for women than for men. For women, paid work was thought of as an option that had to be weighed against the disruption it would cause families; for men, it was considered a given. These traditional role definitions no long adequately reflect the work and family experiences of women and men.

    1. Marital Power and Decision Making.

      When both spouses work, the traditional pattern of male dominance in the relationship shifts to one of greater equality in terms of more joint decision making. Spouses who do not contribute financially generally have little power in the relationship. This holds true across most racial and ethnic groups.

    2. Marital Happiness.

      Reports of whether working wives are happier than homemakers are contradictory. However, surveys do show that men are just as happy whether their wives work or stay home. More important than having a job outside the home seems to be the couple's attitude toward the job. Couples with less time together express less satisfaction with their marriages. Less time also means that some of that time must be taken up with household tasks and care of children.

    3. Husbands and the Division of Household Labor.

      Husbands do not make equal contributions to housework. This often leads to role overload for women. Although a recent study by the Families and Work Institute found that working fathers spend more time on household chores in 1997 than they did in 1977, husbands still do not make equal contributions to housework.

      1. Sharing the Load: Emergent Egalitarian Relationships: Inequity in family work can affect the satisfaction found in marriage. Among wives there is a clear and positive connection between a fair division of family work and marital and personal well being. There seems to be some consensus among both women and men for the need to alter traditional gender roles. Social class, race, and ethnicity are all relevant factors in how family work is divided.

    4. Child Care.

      Both working and nonworking wives are still responsible for the majority of child care. This situation puts working women at a competitive disadvantage with male colleagues who are freed of this responsibility by their wives. Although men's parenting activities appear to be increasing, women still take the major responsibility for child care in the United States. For women, having children constrains their labor market activities. Split-shift employment enables one parent to work and the other to stay home with the children. Parents rarely see each other. For parents who work the same shift, child care is a problem.

      1. The "Mommy Track:" Felice Schwartz has suggested that working women be divided into two groups (career-primary and career-and-family). The first group should be placed on the same career track with talented men, the other group should be provided with considerations for their parental responsibilities. Criticism of the proposal included the fear that such an approach would create a two-tiered system of women workers. The United States is the only industrialized country that does not have a national child-care policy.


    The transition to work, marriage, and parenthood requires taking on multiple roles. These roles frequently conflict with one another, resulting in role conflict (when a person occupies two different roles that involve contradictory expectations of what should be done at a given time).

    1. Strategies for Conflict Resolution.

      Role conflict can be resolved in a variety of ways.

      1. Establishing Priorities: This is often complicated by gender, class, and the organization of work itself.

      2. Role Exit: Leaving the work force, or taking a part-time job.

      3. Public Awareness: People are pressuring the government and employers to introduce or modify policies to help resolve conflicts between work and family responsibilities.


    Although the labor force participation rates of women and men are converging, women still confront issues of inequity in the labor force.

    1. Occupational Distribution.

      Occupational distribution refers to the location of workers in different occupations. Women tend to work in lower-paying jobs even when they are working in professional specialties. Occupational segregation has consequences for the well-being of workers and their families and can result in an earnings gap between women and men and between whites and people of color.

    2. The Race-Gender Gap in Earnings: Good News and Bad News.

      No matter how earnings are measured, women's wages are lower than men's, regardless of race and ethnicity. According to sociologist Beth Shelton, women's double workload holds their earnings; the more time women spend on housework, the less time they have for their jobs. Gender and racial inequalities deprive families of greater purchasing power. One solution that has been proposed to narrow the gender gap in earnings is comparable worth, the principle of equal pay for different jobs of similar worth.

    3. Sexual Harassment.

      Surveys of working women suggest that 75 percent have been harassed at some point in their work lives. Race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, age and marital status affect the experience of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment appears to be more prevalent in male-dominated occupations. Although sexual harassment violates equal-employment laws, enforcement is difficult. Harassment victims frequently bring these problems home with them, thereby adding tension to family relationships.


    All parents share a common desire to provide a decent standard of living for themselves and their families. An increasing number of couples have made the decision to become a dual-earner family. Although the United States is a wealthy country, not all families share in the wealth. In 1996, the poverty level, as determined by the federal government was $16,400.00 for a family of four and $12,802.00 for a family of three.

    1. Who are the Poor?

      Poverty rates vary by family type, and race and ethnicity. Married couples have the lowest poverty rate. Families headed by women account for the largest increase in poor families since 1970. Children under 18 years of age account for 40 percent of the poor, and this figure is likely to increase. The increase in women and children who are poor is referred to as the feminization of poverty. Most of the poor are white, but whites have a lower poverty rate overall. Although many people believe that people are poor because they are lazy and don't want to work, the reality is the majority of people living in poverty live in households where individuals work full-time but make very low wages. They are the working poor.

    2. Underemployment and Underemployment.

      As a result of economic slowdowns, global competition, new technology, and plant closings, increasing numbers of people have been unemployed or underemployed for varying periods of time. Loss of income has an enormous impact on family members. In any given year, millions of other people are not counted among the unemployed. Some people cannot seek work because of family responsibilities, illness, or disability, or because they are in school. Others, unsuccessful in their job quest, give up looking for work. Regardless of the causes, the impact of unemployment on family members can be enormous.

      1. Unemployment and Marital Functioning: Joblessness can lead to a disruption in previously agreed-upon family roles, resulting in dissatisfaction for one or both partners.

      2. Variations in Family Responses to Unemployment: How family members react depends on how they functioned prior to the unemployment, and the reasons for the unemployment.

      3. Age, Ethnicity, and Unemployment: Youth unemployment is high, and may have lasting consequences. Among adults, Native-Americans also have a high unemployment rate. Underemployment is also a problem (part-time workers who want to work full-time, and the working poor, people who make low wages).

    3. Homelessness.

      Unemployment often leads to homelessness, but employment does not always guarantee a place to live. Some studies have found that 20 percent of homeless adults are employed either full time or part-time. Historically, communities have solved problems of homelessness by "binding out," "warning out," or by "Greyhound relief."

      1. The Homeless Today: Rossi distinguishes two kinds of homeless-the "literally homeless" and the "precariously housed." An accurate estimate of the number of homeless is difficult.

      2. Who are the Homeless?: Officials estimate that on average, single men constitute 45 percent of the homeless population; families with children, 38 percent; single women, 14 percent; and unaccompanied minors, 3.1 percent.

      3. Causes and Remedies: Homelessness occurs as a result of a number of interrelated factors such as a rapid decline in the supply of low-income housing, an increase in the number of poor families, mental illness and deinstitutionalization, family violence, adolescent runaways, unemployment and low earnings, substance abuse, budget cuts in public welfare programs, increases in the cost of living, racism, and sexism. In 1987, the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act passed, providing money for shelters, medical care and services for the chronically mentally ill, and for a variety of other rehabilitation programs.

    4. The Welfare Debate.

      Over the last decade, increasing attention has been focused on the budget deficit and its perceived drain on the United States economy. A popular target of the budget cutters is the welfare system. In 1996, the "Welfare Reform Act" was passed. Among its main provisions are a work requirement mandating two years of assistance with a five-year cap on the total time a family can receive assistance, and significant reductions in the Food Stamp Program.


    Traditional business hours of 9 to 5 are difficult for many people who have to work during those hours. Some businesses are altering their hours to accommodate these people.

    1. Workplace Changes.

      The problem of "latchkey children" has led some companies to offer part-time employment with full benefits to parents, job sharing, or flextime.

    2. Family Leave.

      Until 1993, the United States was one of the few industrialized countries that did not have a national family-leave policy. In 1990 and 1992, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act which would have allowed either parent to take up to 3 months of unpaid leave for births, adoptions and family emergencies. The bill excludes workers in companies with fewer than 50 employees, and provides only for unpaid leave. The United States has no statutory provision that guarantees a woman pregnancy leave, either paid or unpaid, or that guarantees that she can return to her job after childbirth. In 1993, President Clinton signed the Act into law, but in comparison to other industrialized nations, its provisions fall short.



After reading Chapter Ten, students should be able to:

  1. describe the changing composition of the United States labor force.

  2. discuss the transition in families in the United States from the traditional nuclear family to the two-income family.

  3. analyze the impact of work on family relationships.

  4. identify the types of role problems which occur in modern families and discuss several possible solutions.

  5. list and discuss the problems encountered by women who enter the labor force.

  6. provide a detailed overview of unemployment and of poverty in the United States.

  7. suggest changes in the workplace that might serve to accommodate the increasing number of women in the labor force.



labor-force participation rate
commuter marriage
role overload
role conflict
occupational distribution
comparable worth
sexual harassment
feminization of poverty
working poor
Aid to Dependent Children
Family Support Act
job sharing
Family and Medical Leave Act
Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978



  1. Ask your students to vocalize their personal plans: If they plan to marry, do they expect their spouse to work-to not work? Will they have children, and how do these plans interact with career aspirations? How do they feel about dual-careers? About commuter marriages? Class responses should provide an excellent basis for discussion of these issues in Chapter Ten.

  2. Not that long ago, if married couples took "separate vacations," it was presumed that they were on the verge of divorce and to some extent these attitudes are still present today. Commuter marriages often conjure up the same imagery: They can't last because married people should be together a great deal of the time. Encourage your students to think about how marriage means different things to different people in much the same fashion that some adults elect a single lifestyle or decide to remain childless.

  3. Ask your class to consider whether housework should be an assumed responsibility of either spouse (housewife or househusband), or whether these tasks should be equally shared by both spouses. Many modern marriages are dual-earner or dual-career situations, which makes sharing household responsibilities the most viable option. Research has shown, however, that although spouses may vocalize that household chores are being shared, the woman ends up doing more of this kind of work. Ask the members of your class to offer explanations for why this is the case.

  4. Many students may snicker about the househusband role. Challenge your students by asking them to consider why they think the role of househusband is funny, out of place, etc. Use this discussion as an opportunity to illustrate how the housewife role is devalued in American society. Furthermore, the discussion can be used to show how women are still frequently presumed to be the caretakers of "menial tasks" around the house.

  5. Many career women have voiced the opinion that they need a "wife." Discuss the role of wives in the two-person career (entertaining, comforting, enhancing the spouse's image, etc.) Compare that situation to the "second shift" situation which most working wives face.

  6. Ask the female students in your class to vocalize why they are going to college. See how many of them specify that they are training to have careers, rather than to earn money. Encourage those who state a preference for a satisfying career to vocalize why they want to do this rather than to quit college, marry, settle down, and have children. Then, ask how many of the women who want careers also want to be mothers. Bring up the "super-Mom" syndrome, and ask them to vocalize how they plan to avoid the pitfalls associated with this. Be sure to elicit the reactions of the men in the class; some of their reactions, especially from the more traditional ones, should be quite interesting.

  7. See if any of the women in your class can identify personally with the "mommy track." This should stimulate an interesting discussion of how young people in American society today are much more likely to combine work and family.

  8. "Comparable worth" is a controversial topic that is likely to generate considerable debate among your students. One item for discussion involves the formulae that various judges have developed for assessing whether one job is "comparable" to another.

  9. In the context of comparable worth, have your students locate some largely male and largely female occupations on campus or in their community. They can then do a "comparable worth" assessment of the jobs. This can then be the context for debating whether such an assessment can be done and whether it should be done.

  10. Dual-career marriages, and especially commuter marriages, are often suspect when it comes to the issue of marital happiness. Ask your students to think about the traditional statement: "families that play together stay together," and how historical refrains like this influence our thinking about nontraditional lifestyles like commuter marriage. Turn the issue around by introducing another old refrain, "Parting makes the heart grow fonder," and suggest that participants in commuter marriages may, in fact, be happier as a consequence of their lifestyle. Hopefully, some students will find this argument inappropriate and voice their concerns. An interesting discussion should ensue.

  11. Within the past decade, most colleges and universities have formulated a sexual harassment policy for their employees. Considerable debate has ensued regarding this process, and perhaps your institution is an example in this regard. Ask your students to confront the question, "What constitutes sexual harassment?"

  12. The debate has continued to rage within American government about the viability of a family leave policy. Legislation was introduced that would have permitted American workers to take extended leave (without pay, of course) for family-based reasons, with a guarantee of return to employment. The Bush administration opposed this policy, maintaining that such a policy would have a negative impact on economic enterprise in the United States. In 1993, under the Clinton administration, the Family and Medical Leave Act passed, but as the text points out, the results have been mixed. Have your students vocalize the pros and cons of a more elaborate family leave policy. What do they think of the point of view that is detailed in the text: that conflicts over parental leave and child care will decrease only when family policies take children and working parents more seriously?

  13. Family and medical leave policies are extremely controversial in contemporary American society. Have your class evaluate why this controversy exists. How are small businesses affected by such policies? Should the government provide subsidies to support these policies? And what about sponsored day care? If the government sponsored day care programs, this might be the key to getting a lot of women and children off of the welfare roles. See how the members of your class react to this prospect. An interesting discussion should ensue.

  14. In his book Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women (New York, The Free Press, 1993), Elliot Liebow provides an interesting ethnography of some of the women who live in different shelters for the homeless. Liebow demythologizes many commonly held misperceptions about the homeless and details how these people fell on such abject poverty. This presentation can serve as a baseline for an in-class discussion of the homeless problem in American society-particularly in terms of how the condition affects families.



Jobs: Not What They Used to Be--The New Face of Work in America, 1996, 57 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This program examines some fundamental and transforming changes occurring with jobs and work in America. A number of American companies are highlighted, including interviews with both employees and CEOs.


Taking on the Boys' Club: Women in the Workplace, 1998, 46 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This two-part ABC News special examines the workplace that has emerged in the 1990s--a workplace influenced by sexual discrimination law suits and the ensuing legislation that defines sexual harassment not only in quid pro quo terms, but also in terms of the fostering of a "hostile work environment."


Can't Slow Down, 1996, 28 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This program examines Americans' increasingly hurried lifestyle, working 160 hours a year more than they did in 1970. This program emphasizes the impact of this hustle and bustle on couples, who are often too busy to talk to each other.


Why Value Diversity?, 1992, 26 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This program deals with the realities of a multiracial, multilingual workforce that is equally populated with women and men. The presentation focuses on adaptation and the benefits that can be derived from this diversity.


Working: The American Worker, 1994, 29 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). How does employment and all of the factors associated with working contribute to a person's dignity? This and other questions are tackled in this presentation, which examines the changing work environment in our society and how American workers are having a more difficult time maintaining their dignity, self worth, and a steady income.


Sexual Discrimination in the Marketplace, 1992, 28 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). In this specially adapted Phil Donahue program, Ralph Nader points out the many instances of sexual discrimination in today's workplace, and advice is given as to how these inequities may be corrected.


Out of Work, 1992, 58 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). More and more Americans find themselves unemployed. This program looks at the financial and emotional consequences of unemployment and sensitizes the viewer to the changing times: that devoting a lifetime to one employer seems to be a thing of the past.


The Workplace Hustle: A Film About Sexual Harassment of Working Women, 1980, 33 min. (Clark Communications, AIMS Media). Given its production date of 1980, this presentation may be useful as a comparative device in tandem with a more recent program on sexual harassment. Through a series of interviews and vignettes, it is clear that sexual harassment is a serious problem for many working women. This presentation explains how important it is for men and women to find a common language on the subject and to understand what sexual harassment really is.


Sexual Harassment from 9 to 5, 1991, 26 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This program looks at the legal and human side of sexual harassment in the workplace. Through the lives of three women who have been adversely affected by such practices, the presentation highlights the rights of women and the responsibilities of companies who employ them.


Problems of Working Women, 1991, 24 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This program examines the pressures encountered by working women who are mothers of small children: their salaries are too low to pay for proper care and supervision of their children during the work day, inadequate or unavailable child-care facilities, and little or no help with household maintenance.


Men and Women Working Together, 1991, 18 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This program is devoted to the issues raised by the changing roles of women in the workplace: discrimination based on sex and the legal issues involved, as well as the issues of confusion, resentment, and lack of cooperation and emotional support engendered by the changes in the traditional roles of men and women.


Can Working Women Have It All?, 1988, 28 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). Can women combine successful careers with successful home lives and not die of exhaustion in pursuit of superwomanhood? Panelists Kate Rand Lloyd of Working Woman magazine and Sylvia Hewlett, author of A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation in America, join Phil Donahue in exploring the issues confronting today's women and the choices they must make.


Work and Family (Gender Roles series), 1994, 2-parts, 60 min. each (RMI Media Productions, Inc.). These twin-programs deal with dual-career families, family and work compatibility, poverty among single-parent families, the feminization of poverty, health care availability, and infant mortality. Arlie Hochschild, author of The Second Shift is interviewed in Part I.


Working Husbands/Working Wives (Portrait of a Family series), 1988, 30 min. (RMI Media Productions, Inc.). This presentation explores the evolution, development and social/personal impact of the dual-earner and dual-career family.


Latchkey Families, 1992, 23 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This program offers specific guidance to working parents with children who are on their own after school.


No Place Like Home, 1994, 25 min. (Center for Media and Independent Learning, University of California Extension). This video provides a sketch of what it is like for families living in poverty and how this extreme socioeconomic disadvantage can be passed on from generation to generation.


Inside Life Outside, 1988, 57 min. (New Day Films). This video deals with the lives of residents of Shantytown-an impromptu village of homeless people in New York City's Lower East Side.