Uncle Sam should give working families a hand

Newsday, September 7, 2005. By Stephanie Coontz.

Stephanie Coontz teaches history at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and is the author of "Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage."

September 7, 2005

At first glance, labor this year seems to have much to celebrate.

Of the world's 20 richest industrial countries, the United States has the highest per capita income, as measured by the actual purchasing power of wages. The best-paid workers in the United States earn much more than their counterparts abroad. Indeed, many rich Americans now get most of their income from wages and salaries rather than, as in earlier days, from stocks, bonds and business profits.

But although the United States may be a great place for making some individuals rich, it functions less well for most working families. We are No. 1 in per capita income, but we are also No. 1 in the number of hours that full-time workers spend on the job. We trail the rest of the industrial world in the number of vacation days we get. And 94 percent of the growth in total income since 1973 has gone to the richest l percent of Americans.

For many families the advantage of cheap consumer goods is offset by several major handicaps that families in other wealthy nations don't have to face. The United States has the highest child poverty rates - even for children of two-parent families - among the 20 richest nations, and the highest percentage of people who remain poor for years at a time. Even for economically comfortable families, the U.S. labor system creates immense stress. In every other advanced capitalist country, citizens enjoy near-universal health care and do not need to worry about being wiped out by a catastrophic health emergency. Americans have never had comparable access to health care, but private employers and the federal government did establish an extensive social safety net in other arenas between World War II and the 1960s. Since the late 1970s, however, that safety net has been substantially dismantled.

Fewer people are eligible for unemployment insurance to- day, and benefits last a shorter time than 30 years ago. Corporations now provide health insurance to a much smaller percentage of their employees, and since 2000 they have raised the premiums workers must pay by an average of 50 percent. Almost half of all private-sector workers in America are not entitled to a single day of paid sick leave.

News stories often focus on the shrinking percentage of U.S. workers who are members of labor unions. Blue-collar workers who have spent their entire working lives at companies such as United Airlines now see their employers defaulting on the pension plans they were promised. In a dozen states, fully 30 percent of all jobs (the majority filled not by youths but by working people in the prime family-raising years) don't even pay poverty-level wages.

Many families today require two incomes just to meet basic living expenses, and most need two incomes to get a piece of the American dream, such as a better home in a decent school district and a college education for their children. Yet, the United States lags far behind the rest of the industrial world when it comes to supporting working parents.

More than 160 countries mandate paid maternity leave for working women, at least on paper. In the United States only half of America's working mothers are even entitled to unpaid maternity leave because their companies are too small to be covered by the Family Leave Act. In Germany, by contrast, women get six weeks' paid leave before the birth of a child and eight weeks after. In Greece, mothers get a 17-week maternity leave at 50- percent pay.

Politicians claim that we can't afford to join the rest of the industrial world in adopting such family-friendly policies. But in 2005, the cost to the Treasury of the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 was $248 billion. That's not chump change.

Instead of passing more tax cuts for the top 1 percent of the population whose labors have been so generously rewarded over the past two decades, our political leaders need to rebuild the social safety net, introduce a system of universal health insurance and institute parental and family-leave policies that don't make spending time with your kids a privilege reserved for the rich. It's time to demand action, not empty rhetoric.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

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