Working More, But For Less Pay?

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Higher unemployment isn’t the only thing putting the American dream at risk.

Americans live by the idea that each generation can do better than the last and that, for those who have a job, working hard leads to more success. But that’s not panning out, according to a new paper by the Brookings Institution. Since 1975, two-parent families have been earning more, but not because they’re being paid more.  Instead, they’re just working longer hours. Incomes for the typical two-parent family rose to $70,000 in 2009, compared to roughly $57,000 in 1975, but that’s mostly because women entered the workforce. Those families worked 26% longer than the typical family in 1975.  For the middle 10% of families, men’s earnings have actually dropped from $50,000 per year in 1975 to just north of $45,000 in 2009, while women’s wages — driven by higher education and access to higher-paying jobs — have risen from under $10,000 to just over $20,000.

Single-parent families, which now make up over one-third of American families with children, have it even worse. The time they clock at work has jumped 53% since 1975. Their earnings have risen more, by 69%, but that’s mostly because most single-parent families are run by women, many of whom didn’t used to work. Women climbing the career ladder has bumped single-family pay, but not enough to keep pace with married folk. Single-parent families still earn less than one-fourth of what a two-parent family makes.

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The Great Recession has only made things worse. Two-parent family incomes fell 5% from 2007 to 2009. The drop for single-parent families was a jarring 18%. So what’s driving the decline? Chalk it up to the end of organized labor, the decline in American manufacturing, and a more globalized labor force. The Great Recession may technically be over, but the future seems evermore bleak.

MORE: “The End of Cheap Labor in China.”

Roya Wolverson writes for TIME. Find her on Twitter at @royaclare. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.