Thursday, March 22, 2007

Family Values Begin At Home, But Who's Home?

In the struggle to balance work and family, work is winning. Democrats need to take back the values issue and promote economic policies that recognize that workers have families.


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

By Heather Boushey

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.

Where's Mom?

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.

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