The American Prospect, March 2007
Family is the center of everyday American life. Our parents are our first protectors, first teachers, first role models, and first friends. Parents know that America's great reward is the quiet but incomparable satisfaction that comes from building their families a better life. Strong families, blessed with opportunity, guided by faith, and filled with dreams are the heart of a strong America.
-- 2004 Democratic platform
Americans are said to be deeply concerned about family values. One of those values, surely, is the need to reconcile the ability to be a responsible parent, a loving partner in a relationship, and a successful worker. What is the economy for, if not to enable families to live and thrive? We work to live, not live to work.
Yet, despite the symbolic genuflecting to values, these issues have been appallingly absent from the political conversation. While the right has won the rhetoric wars by emphasizing the traditional values, liberals in electoral politics have not seriously address paid leave, or child care, or the other policy challenges that might make it less arduous to reconcile work and family. The Democrats' 2004 presidential platform vacuously talked about "valuing parenting," but nowhere did it say that parents have the right to time off when their children are ill, a right guaranteed by every nearly every other democracy.
Compared to a generation ago, families have lost 539 hours per year to the U.S. economy -- 13.5 weeks of full-time work. Where did the hours go? Intuitively, we all know the answer: Mom got a job (see figure on next page). But while families put in more hours at work than their parents did, their inflation-adjusted incomes are only a tad higher (see figure on next page). And, when you adjust for the additional hours worked, median living standards are actually lower. Because Mom works, families have been able to keep their incomes from falling -- but, this doesn't mean that the economy is working for families.
Families are angry, frustrated, and confused about this time grab. According to the Families and Work Institute in New York, two-thirds of parents say that they don't have enough time with their children and nearly two-thirds of married workers say that they don't have enough time with their spouse. Nearly half of all employees with families report conflicts between their job and their family lives, more so than a generation ago.
With some political leadership, this anger could translate into profound policy changes.
When we measure the economy by how well it works for families, we see that the most important trend affecting family well-being has been the movement of mothers out of the home and into the workplace. With each uptick of women's labor force participation, families lost another unpaid domestic worker who cooked, cleaned, and cared for her family. Back in the Ozzie and Harriet days, Mom was at home (where she worked for free). She made a home-cooked dinner most every night. She helped Uncle Joe when he came home from the hospital. She kept an eye on the children -- hers and the neighbors' -- and she felt that her neighborhood was safe since every other mother on the block was doing the same thing.
What's remarkable, however, is that even though mothers work more today, they also spend more time parenting. Time diaries show that over the past decade and a half, mothers spent an average of four more hours per week at a paid job and five more hours parenting. Mothers now spend less time on housework, yet they have less time for themselves. This underscores how important family is to us. It also underscores that mothers may feel guilt about being at work rather than at home and that they are doing all they can to make up for the stolen time.
Fathers also are spending more time with their children. By 2000, fathers spent two more hours per week at their job and four more hours parenting than they did in 1985. [See Scott Coltrane, "What About Fathers?"] But, fathers are not doing more chores around the house. At first, when mothers moved into employment, men did more household chores, but during the 1990s, men stopped helping around the house as much. By the end of the 1990s, men's hours of housework had fallen below their 1970 level.
For today's families, it is a luxury to cook a meal together or stay home with the children, rather than work. Nearly one-third of all U.S. children are being raised by a single parent, who most likely works. Even in married-couple families with children, two-thirds have both the husband and wife working. In more than half, the wife works full time.
The new family economics requires that families pay for care, rather than have Mom do it for free. Today, if Harriet were from a low-to-moderate income family and went to work, she would pay upwards of a fifth of her total family income on child care. (And, more than likely, that care is not excellent or even good.) Now, when Uncle Joe needs help getting dressed and going shopping, Ozzie and Harriet have to kick in for a home-health aide.
"Caring services" are expensive because they are fairly immune to cost-cutting strategies. Unless technology can put eyes on the back of the head of the day-care worker, she can't watch more than a few children at a time. Yet only the very richest families can afford to pay a living wage for caring services. We must look to alternative financing. Government funds our public schools and subsidizes public colleges and universities, yet we spend less than one-half of 1 percent of our federal budget on child care.
Why Does Mom Work?
Mothers work because they can and also because they have to. The feminist revolution opened up job opportunities and the Pill allowed women to choose when to have a family. But, for most families, if Mom's at work, it's because she has to be. Who can raise a family on just one income? How can a single mother even contemplate not working now that we've closed the welfare offices?
When they grow up, most girls expect to hold a job and most boys expect their wives will work. As a result, girls are increasingly investing in their own "human capital." Women now outnumber men on college campuses. And women must expect to make use of those college degrees by getting a job after graduation or they wouldn't be taking out so many loans.
Once a girl grows up and gets a job, her earnings will play a critical role in her family's well-being. Married Moms generally still do not earn as much as Dad (although one-third of wives do earn more than their husbands), but they bring home, on average, more than a third of the family's income. Because Mom works, the family is most likely in (or at least close to) the middle class. And the higher the family income, the more likely it is that Mom has a job and works full time. In recent decades, the families that were upwardly mobile were those who had a working wife.
Low-income, single mothers have no choice but to work, if they want to feed their families. A decade ago, welfare reform challenged low-income single mothers to find jobs. Over the next few years, the employment rate of single mothers rose from 71 percent in 1991 to 82 percent in 2000. Now, not only are single mothers as likely to work as married mothers, but they also usually work more hours. Even so, the typical, unmarried mother teeters on the edge of poverty.
Working is not just about the present, but about securing an economic future. Dropping out of employment -- even for just a year or two -- has a long-term effect on women's wages. For every two years out of the labor force, a woman's earnings fall by about 10 percent and this "mommy penalty" does not go away once the kids are grown. Earnings are lower for the rest of a woman's working life. Most mothers also know that taking time off now may make it impossible for them to support themselves in the future if they get divorced or their husband loses his job.
Even though most workers have someone in their life who needs care, very few jobs make it easy to balance work with family needs. Most likely, Mom works in an office, or a store, school, or hospital. If she's a professional, she probably has access to some family-friendly perks, like health insurance, paid leave, and some flexibility. However, she still faces a labor market where she'll earn less than her male colleagues and have less upward mobility.
Most mothers, however, are not professionals. Regular working mothers typically have little or no control over their weekly schedules. In many service-sector jobs, schedules are posted only a few days in advance, and mandatory overtime is common, as are hours outside the typical 9-to-5. These scheduling issues can make finding -- and keeping -- quality child care nearly impossible.
Many families, especially lower-income families, resort to "tag-team" parenting, where one spouse watches the children while the other one works. This can save on child-care costs, but it's hard on marriages. This is where economic reality meets family values. Progressives could take back the "family values" mantel if they focused on fixing the ways that jobs make it difficult (or impossible) for people to be members of families.
Recent news stories have claimed that the battle for work/life balance is over, and that life won. They say women are opting out of employment, and the evidence they point to is that the share of women working fell after 2000. But this drop in employment was actually caused by a recession. Now that employment rates are rising again (the 2001 recession having been harder on women than other recent recessions), women -- and mothers -- are returning to work. Opt out over.
In reality, work, not life, has been winning the work/life battle.
For life to win, we need policies that directly challenge employers to work with their employees to provide them with usable flexibility. This doesn't have to be costly, but it does require that employers give up some control over the workday. But, life also requires work and we need government programs that provide safe, affordable, and high-quality care for children, the ill, and the elderly while we're all toiling away. The truth is that Harriet and her ilk spoiled us terribly. They gave us something nearly priceless for free. Now that most women work, we need to pay for care and it is expensive. However, the costs of not paying for it are certainly far higher. [See Janet Gornick's "Atlantic Passages" for more how other countries do this.]
It's the Family Economy, Stupid
The 2006 elections showed that voters are concerned about economic security. But economic security doesn't just mean that voters want to see strong job growth and reliable health insurance; it also means that your own economic situation is secure and is not tearing your family apart.
To take back the values issue, we need to begin at home. See who's minding the children, caring for the family. See that most parents work. See that most working parents don't have the right to take a sick day when children get the flu. See that most working parents don't have the right to alter their schedule to pick up the children on time after school, or even attend a soccer game.
Americans are waiting for economic policies that recognize that workers have families -- policies that require employers to work with their employees to let life win. Candidates in 2008 take note: All voters -- regardless of how industrialized or de-industrialized their precinct -- are a part of some form of family. Get a few more of these "family values" voters to turnout, and you're well on your way to durable legislative majorities. Tell them how you will pay attention to work/life issues and tame our economy to make it work for us, so life wins.
Heather Boushey is a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and co-author of The State of Working America 2002–2003 and Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families.