Can the Working Family Work in America?

The American Prospect
17 May 2016
By Stephanie Coontz

America still hasn't adjusted to family realities in the 21st century. Here's what needs to be done and why we need to do it. 

The male-breadwinner family is arguably the least traditional family form in all of world history. For thousands of years, husbands, wives, and children worked together to provision the household. In the United States, it wasn't until the 1920s that a bare majority of children lived in homes where the mother was not working beside her husband in a family enterprise or earning income in other ways, with the children exempted from labor to go to school.

Receding in the Great Depression and World War II, the male-breadwinner family roared back once the war ended. At the end of the 1950s, only 19 percent of married mothers with children under age six were in the labor force. Two-thirds of children under age 15 lived in married families in which the husband had a job and the wife stayed home.

But by that time, wives and mothers were already re-entering the labor force, and by 2014, 64 percent of married women with children under six were employed. Today, only 22 percent of all children under age 15 in the United States live in married families where the husband is the sole breadwinner. That’s a lower percentage than the 26 percent living with a single parent.

Yet America’s work policies, pay and promotion practices, school schedules, and caregiving ideals continue to be based on that very nontraditional and fleeting family model, assuming that every employee has a full-time, stay-at-home partner to handle the homemaking and caregiving tasks that are incompatible with the ever-growing demands of work. Only 13 percent of American full-time workers have access to paid family leave, and 44 percent don’t even have the right to unpaid leave. A 2008 study by the Department of Health and Human Services revealed that the average length of maternity leave then was just ten weeks, and a 2012 survey by the Department of Labor found that nearly one-quarter of the women they surveyed returned to work within two weeks of having a child!

Furthermore, in contrast to every other comparably developed country in the world, the United States has no mandated paid sick days, vacation time, or limits to the length of the workweek. This poses a serious burden on parents, but also on the more than 40 million Americans providing unpaid elder care, more than 60 percent of whom hold down a job. The United States doesn’t even have a law prohibiting employers from discriminating against workers just for requesting work-life accommodations.

With most women in the workforce today and most men eager to participate more at home, we need a new set of arrangements to coordinate work, family, and community needs. Growing numbers of Americans believe it is time to bring our outmoded social policies into line with our changing workforce. Polls show widespread support for instituting paid family leave and expanding children’s access to high-quality child care and preschool. By the end of 2015, four states and about a dozen cities had legislated paid family leave, with another 18 states considering such measures.

The authors of two recent books hope to increase support for such family-friendly measures. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family emphasizes the need to change our cultural values and gender-based assumptions about work and caregiving, while Heather Boushey’s Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict stresses the economic benefits of reform. Both argue that the modern workforce needs a new infrastructure of caregiving, comparable to the transportation and energy infrastructure the government built in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, which was crucial to the expansion of postwar productivity and the improvement in living standards during that era.

Slaughter’s book had its roots in an article she published in The Atlantic in 2012 titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Within a week, her article had a million views, and following what has become a new template for publishing, she soon received a contract to expand the article into a book.

Normally, I dread reading books that have been spun out of a popular article. All too often, the authors feel compelled to take what started as an interesting, provocative observation and pad it with repetitive anecdotes and selective statistics designed to prove that they have produced a new paradigm or identified a revolutionary shift in social, political, or family relations.

Slaughter offers a refreshing contrast. She has produced a book that adds heft and nuance to the original article, which had several weaknesses, starting with her description of how she became disillusioned with the “feminist credo” that you can “have it all.” Many women took umbrage at that, since “having it all” had never been a goal of the women’s liberation movement. The phrase first gained traction as the title of a 1982 book by Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown about how women could use feminine wiles to get “love, success, sex, and money.”

Slaughter’s original article treated work-family conflict as predominantly a woman’s issue, stemming in part from “a maternal imperative,” a description that offended many men as well as women. Additionally, it focused almost exclusively on issues facing elite women in demanding high-powered careers, ignoring the problems of overwork facing men in similar careers and devoting only a paragraph to the issues facing middle- and low-wage workers.

But over the next few years Slaughter engaged thoughtfully with her critics as well as her admirers, deepening her analysis and delving further into the existing body of work-family research. She has produced a book with a persuasive and at times passionate argument about why we need to rethink work and elevate the value of care. She now urges us to stop seeing this as a women’s issue, citing evidence that men are equally distressed by policies that make it difficult to combine work and family obligations, and noting that if women want to be treated as valued equals in the competitive realm, they must learn to treat men as valued equals in the caring realm. She suggests that women and men should plan ahead so that both can alternate intervals of intensive work with periods where they step back (but do not drop out) to focus more on other aspects of life.

Much of the advice in the book (“train your boss,” for example) is more relevant to professional women than to low-wage workers, who seldom have much leeway in planning their career or negotiating their working conditions. But Unfinished Business also devotes considerable attention to the issues facing low-wage and middle-income workers, both those who need to purchase caregiving and those who provide it for pay. She argues that the “devaluing of and discrimination against caregiving … provides the common thread linking the experiences of women at the top and at the bottom,” and she clearly lays out the differences in the dynamics and consequences of that discrimination.

While Slaughter critiques the way “the competitive mystique” deforms work and family life, Heather Boushey goes after the “job-killer” mystique—the notion that any interference with a firm’s short-term profits acts as a drag on the economy. Finding Time builds upon the groundbreaking work she did with Joan Williams in 2010 in a report for the Center for American Progress (“The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict: The Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle”) analyzing the distinctive issues facing different kinds of workers and suggesting a mix of policies that could help them all.

Boushey aims to convince policymakers, business leaders, and the public that instituting fair, flexible, and universally available caregiving support systems for all three of these groups is not just the humane thing to do but also the efficient thing to do. Having support systems in place for caregiving needs increases the productivity, reliability, and loyalty of workers and decreases costly labor turnover, saving businesses money. Such programs also enhance the ability of families to purchase the goods and services that businesses create. Equity and efficiency can work together, Boushey insists. Programs that improve the coordination of work and family life should be seen not as welfare, but rather as something very close to a progressive version of workfare.

Boushey and Slaughter both present evidence that workplaces with flexible, accommodating schedules are more productive than those that emphasize long hours and rigid schedules. They each provide examples of successful innovations such as telecommuting and “results-only” work environments. Boushey pays particular attention to the economic case for family leave, showing that despite the initial fears of business leaders, the implementation of paid leave in California benefited businesses as well as working families. Both books note that countries with extensive work-life policies have higher social mobility and are often more competitive than the United States.

Both authors also critique the current caregiving arrangements of the unregulated private market, whereby middle-income families can often afford child care and elder care only by turning to low-paid caregivers—a dynamic that puts the caregivers’ own families at risk, impairs the quality and consistency of the care they can offer, and ultimately costs the public dearly.

For example, almost half of America’s child-care and home health workers are paid so little that they have to rely on some sort of public assistance: Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, and/or the Earned Income Tax Credit. The high staff turnover and low staff-to-child ratios that prevail in so many of America’s unregulated child-care settings do little to prepare children for future success. Boushey quotes a 2013 “Open Letter from Business Leaders to President Obama and Members of Congress,” stating that investment in early childhood education “is not a partisan issue. It is an American competitiveness issue.”

But what are the prospects for actually building a comprehensive infrastructure of work-life supports in a country with such a poor track record of investing in any infrastructure whatsoever over the past 40 years?

Slaughter is a little vague on this point. On the one hand, she recognizes the need for a universal government-mandated work-life policy that “establishes a new floor” and “levels the playing field” so that businesses providing good work-life benefits are not penalized by having to compete with less-scrupulous rivals. On the other, she suggests that we don’t have to choose between market-based and government solutions but can “encourage a little competition,” with different states and different cities trying different approaches and being willing to compromise as they find out what works best.

Even aside from the fact that some competing solutions are mutually exclusive, if not mutually destructive, such willingness to compromise depends upon forging a legislative commitment to caregiving issues. To that end, Slaughter calls for electing more women to public office, citing Christopher Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg’s 2014 book, The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions. Karpowitz and Mendelberg argue that although American women are on the whole more supportive of government action to meet health needs, reduce poverty, and improve the lot of children than most American men (African American men are an exception), they are unlikely to articulate their views in groups where women constitute a minority.

Electing more women to public office in the United States is a worthy goal. But electing a few more senators or even a female president will not be sufficient to turn our current priorities around. Karpowitz and Mendelberg find that when a woman individually attains a position of power, such as a committee chair, this emboldens her to assert her own views, but it does not empower the other women in the room so long as they remain in the minority. Only when women make up the majority of a group do they present their preferences forcefully enough to influence men in the same direction.

Boushey believes that in this era of weakened labor unions and strengthened elites, it is essential to build a coalition that includes not only traditional workers’ rights groups but also groups that advocate for women, children, the elderly, and the disabled, along with people of faith and those businesses far-sighted enough to see that America’s long-term prosperity depends on improving the productivity and reliability of today’s workforce as well as ensuring the availability of future generations of educated, responsible workers. And she is adamant that the only way to build such a coalition is to get “all income groups on board.”

Boushey sees little hope in approaches such as tax relief, which normally benefits only higher earners, or welfare programs that are limited to the poorest sections of the population. Rather, she supports a social insurance program that spreads the costs and delivers the benefits to everyone, from the poorest Americans to the richest.

It should be noted that this approach differs somewhat from that of Hillary Clinton, who has made a clear commitment to implementing paid family leave but has also promised not to raise taxes, even social insurance taxes, on anyone earning less than $250,000. According to the most recent Census data, $250,000 a year puts a household safely in the top 5 percent of the income distribution. Although it is tempting to go after the obscene wealth of the top 1 percent, I wonder if trying to finance a national paid leave and/or early childhood education system entirely through taxes on the top 4.5 percent is really practical.

More preferable, in my view, is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which Boushey supports. This would create an independent trust within the Social Security Administration to collect fees and provide benefits. Those benefits would be funded by employee and employer contributions of 0.2 percent of wages each, or 2 cents for every $10 earned by each employee. Gillibrand’s website calculates that “the average woman worker earning the median weekly wage would only need to contribute $1.38 per week (for a total of $72.04 per year) into the program, and even the highest wage earners would have a maximum contribution of $4.36 per week, or $227.40 per year.”

Whatever the details of financing, a wide range of evidence confirms that the long-run benefits of paid leave far outweigh the short-term costs, producing savings for business from increased staff retention, loyalty, and productivity, as well as savings for the public due to the improved infant health associated with paid parental leave and the decreased need for assistance by families who would otherwise have to turn to food stamps or TANF during unpaid leaves.

Boushey points out that instituting better early childhood education could be equally cost-effective. Funding President Obama’s current preschool program proposal for the next ten years, she notes, would cost about $24 per person annually—a minor cost compared to the benefits that families and society as a whole would receive. Indeed, other researchers estimate that every dollar invested in early childhood education saves between $3 and $7 down the road, because children exposed to such programs go on to complete more years of education, work more hours a year, and have lower rates of crime and teen pregnancy even years after the initial improvement in their test scores fades.

But there is stiff resistance to such long-term thinking in parts of America. One source of resistance comes from the top. Boushey is correct to argue that the short-term interests of a few firms are not the same as the long-term health of the economy. But as Colin Gordon shows on his meticulously researched website, Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality, deregulation and the “collapse of meaningful corporate governance” have allowed an extraordinarily bloated financial sector to become increasingly “detached from the rest of the economy, less interested in providing it liquidity or credit than in stripping it of its assets.”

The second source of opposition, much as we might hate to admit it, sits much closer to where most of us live. Americans of all income groups have long been far more hostile to public levies and taxes than their European counterparts, stubbornly clinging to a doctrine of individualistic self-reliance no matter how often this ideology is contradicted by the realities of everyday life.

The roots of this outlook lie in the fact that since the end of the 19th century, America has had a very different pattern of work, community, and family relations than other developed countries. Americans with stable jobs have had access to more consumer goods than their European counterparts and a better chance of achieving a high income in any particular year. On the other hand, they have had higher job-injury rates, fewer public parks, less secure medical coverage, fewer municipal services, and more income volatility.

The New Deal and Great Society programs relieved some of these stresses, but the past 40 years have exacerbated them. In 2004, an international study found that among 31 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States came in 25th in the overall economic security of its citizens.

Such lack of security creates a vicious cycle, in which families figure they will have to pay for their own medical care, transportation, and education and therefore resent deductions from their personal finances for taxes or levies. People fear that increased taxation, even for goals they support, will diminish their personal capacity to circumvent problems they have no historical confidence in government to solve. Thus families confronting the lack of quality child care or preschool and the uneven quality of our public schools often resist proposals to invest in large-scale programs to improve those conditions and instead seek individual solutions, such as hiring low-wage workers to care for their children and saving up to move to a better school district or send their children to private schools.

In recent decades, growing inequality and insecurity have led many Americans to feel that hard work has ceased to pay off and that undeserving Americans are taking more than their fair share. Allison Pugh’s new book, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity, based on intensive interviews with 80 mothers and fathers in different occupations, provides some important insights into the ways people react when their faith in hard work and individual responsibility runs up against the realities of work instability. Many of the people she interviewed had responded to the new “on demand” economy by adopting a “one-way honor system,” holding themselves (and other workers) to a strong work ethic and sense of duty but not expecting the same from employers. Only a few of her subjects expected reciprocal obligations from their employers. Significantly, these were mostly firefighters, police, and public school teachers—government employees with experience of collective bargaining.

Among the others, some blamed themselves for their insecurity, some rose to heroic levels of helping those who were even more needy, and some redirected their disappointment and sense of betrayal away from employers onto others. Pugh’s account focuses on men who became embittered at their wives or ex-wives (often after driving them away), but the dynamics she describes illuminate some of the anger we see against immigrants, blacks, and welfare recipients among Trump and Tea Party supporters. While her survey is hardly representative, it does show us how people are struggling to rework their notions of obligations and ethics in an insecure world. If we are to build the coalitions Boushey and Slaughter envision, we need to understand how people process their disappointment and fear when they lack social protections, and we must learn how to offer them a basis for working with rather than against other families struggling to find secure ground. 

 

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