Although economic shifts always affect the American family, this downturn, both because of its depth and the disproportionate number of men being laid off, is adjusting roles and relationships at home perhaps more than at anytime since the Great Depression. It is recalibrating who earns the income, who picks up the kids at school, and who makes the weekly trip to the dump.
Not all the changes are good: As family budgets have tightened and roles changed, tensions have risen, and some advocates worry domestic violence is increasing. But in other cases, families have forged new bonds and balanced duties in ways unseen even at the height of the feminist movement.
"We've never gone into a recession like this, with this configuration of family values, with so many women in the workforce," says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and the director of research for the Council on Contemporary Families. "If it weren't so sad for so many families, this would be an incredible social experiment."
Some of this disparity can be explained by the deep cuts in the manufacturing and construction industries, which are predominantly male. (In construction, men held 87.5 percent of the jobs at the end of 2007, in manufacturing, 71.2 percent.) In these two sectors alone, some 2 million jobs have been lost – including Kevin Hamilton's.
At the beginning of last year, Kevin and his wife, Cheryl, thought they were on their way toward financial security. Kevin had just gotten a $16-an-hour job at the SMART Papers paper mill outside Cincinnati – $4 better than he was making as a store manager at Dollar General. With their four young children, the couple decided to move out of their rented townhouse and into a trailer. It was supposed to be a temporary move, Cheryl explains now with a sigh, to cut costs and save up for a house of their own. But three days before Christmas, and two months after the birth of their youngest child, Kevin was laid off.