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Working-Class Family Patterns

Digital History TOPIC ID 87

The urban working class developed a very different family configuration than the middle class. At a time when the middle class believed that the husband should be the sole breadwinner, very few working-class families were able to meet that cultural ideal. An older notion of a cooperative family economy persisted. Older children were expected to defer marriage, remain at home, and contribute to the family's income. Young men and women were frequently unable to establish households of their own until their early thirties. Despite the fact that few men could support a working class family on their own wages, paternal authority was reinforced by the nature of employment. In factories and other workplaces, foremen, until the 1920s, did their own hiring, allowing fathers and kinsmen to find work for young relatives, or simply use their relatives as assistants (Hareven, 1982; Mintz & Kellogg, 1993; Tentler, 1979).

It is important not to romanticize working-class family life. Although ties to the immediate family and wider kin network tended to be strong, family cohesion stemmed in large measure from the marginal economic existence of many working-class families. The frequency of premature death, irregular employment, disabling accidents, and wages at or below the subsistence line, coupled with the inadequacy of public welfare mechanisms required individuals to rely on the family and kinship network for assistance and support. The stresses produced by work and financial marginality clearly took a toll on nineteenth-century working-class family life. Many wives fed their husbands apart from the rest of the family and pressured children to play in the streets so as not to disturb their fathers' rest. The kinds of work availability to the working class produced high rates of geographic mobility and meant that many fathers were away from their homes for prolonged periods of time. Indeed, it was a common pattern for immigrant fathers, who were sometimes called 'birds of passage,' to work in the United States for an extended period before returning home to their families (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988; Piore, 1979).

It would not be until the mid-1910s that the cooperative working-class family economy began to give way to the 'family wage' economy, which allowed a working-class male breadwinner to support his family on his wages alone. Increased real wages, particularly after the beginning of World War I in 1914, reduced the number of working-class children in the work force. Contributing to this new family formation were the establishment of the first seniority systems governing promotion, layoffs, and rehiring. The New Deal further solidified this father-centered family economy by prohibiting child labor, expanding workmen's compensation, and targeting jobs programs at male workers (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).

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