Political Animal


February 20, 2013 2:45 PM Why have family-friendly work policies fallen off the national agenda?

By Kathleen Geier

Over the weekend, The New York Times published a terrific op-ed by historian Stephanie Coontz about a vexing subject: why the feminist project of gender equality seems to be badly stalled. It’s an excellent piece, rich in data and well-argued. Coontz makes many important points in the essay, and I strongly urge that you read the whole thing. I’m going to focus on one of the most important points she makes: that America’s miserably inadequate work-family policies are an important reason why gender inequalities continue to loom large.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but when it comes to friendly-family work policy, the United States is horrible. We’re one of the richest countries on the planet, and yet, compared to every other industrialized country, we come in dead last where work and family policies are concerned. As Coontz notes:

180 [countries] now offer guaranteed paid leave to new mothers, and 81 offer paid leave to fathers. They found that 175 mandate paid annual leave for workers, and 162 limit the maximum length of the workweek. The United States offers none of these protections (emphasis mine).

It’s been a full 20 years since the passage of the Clinton-era Family and Medical Leave Act, which offers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to qualified employees. Yet since then, there has been nothing, at least not at the federal level. A few states (California, Connecticut, and New Jersey) and cities (San Francisco and Washington, DC) have passed modest paid leave programs, but we haven’t heard anything from President Obama or any other national political figure on this issue. (President Obama’s call for early childhood education in the State of the Union address was extremely welcome, but those programs are primarily for the kids — though parents will also benefit).

I understand that a big, expensive child care program — or even a modest expansion of the child care system we have — would be tough to get through the current, Republican-dominated Congress. But a paid family leave policy need not be terribly expensive. The one in California, for example, is paid for by minuscule increase in the payroll tax, and funded through the state’s temporary disability program.

Moreover, work/family programs like paid family leave tend to poll extremely well. According to new research by political scientist Kimberly Morgan, recently, when political parties in Europe, even the right-of-center ones, adopted family-friendly policies, they won support at the polls, especially among groups of previously disaffected voters.

According to Ellen Bravo, over 40 million Americans lack even a single paid sick day, and that is a national scandal. Democrats would have much to gain by calling for national policies that promote work-family balance. Even if it’s impossible to get anything decent passed in a Republican Congress, the Dems could shame the Republicans by forcing them to take unpopular votes, or by drawing attention to their opponents’ opposition to these policies during political campaigns.

It’s long past time for America to catch up for the rest of the world, and for the Democrats to put these issues back on the national agenda. What have they got to lose?

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Josef K on February 20, 2013 3:37 PM:

    It’s long past time for the Democrats to put these issues back on the national agenda. What have they got to lose?

    Their corporate bankrollers, I suppose, which means we the people are going to get short-changed again.

    Sorry, but I'm just getting supremely cynical about our current political parties actually giving a damn about us voters. I realize there hasn't been a time where money hasn't held strong sway over our government, but geez, you'd think it would be in the Democrat's self-interest to keep the peasants happy, right?

  • Peter C on February 20, 2013 4:01 PM:

    "Why have family-friendly work policies fallen off the national agenda?"

    Because the Republicans control the House of Representatives and they can't even decide whether or not to throw the country back into recession by implementing needless austerity. Seriously, when the political discussion is at the level of whether or not to ruin the credit rating of nation by defaulting on the national debt in order to soothe delusions of economic catastrophe, there is no oxygen for sane discussions about other policy. We must regain control of the House in 2014 and then resolve to govern without Republican input. They are no longer sane. They must be disempowered until they regain the ability to inhabit an evidence-based universe.

  • Rick B on February 20, 2013 4:22 PM:

    Yep. The corporate bankrollers - controlled by the wealthy plutocrats like the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch, and Edelston and ....

    Wealth is power. When one controls wealth they control people. European feudalism was what happened when bandits/vikings/soldiers took over ownership of the land in a subsistence farming society. Along with the land came ownership of the peasants.

    But when professional armies became powerful enough to defeat feudal levies then governments centralized and grew larger, relegating the aristocrats to other roles. In France the centralization of government happened with the Louis' until Louis XVI corralled the aristocrats in Versailles. Modern bureaucratic government was the result, and almost by accident so was democracy in the island kingdom, England.

    Democracy was when economic power was separated and decentralized from government. As the USSR proved, a centralized government with total control of the economy will fail because it cannot make decisions rapidly and flexibly as required by the market.

    What is happening in America now is that we have recreated local pockets of independent wealth which want free from central government taxation and regulations so that they hate.

    Europe was fortunate (?) in that WW II destroyed all the powerful fortunes. Democracy grew up quickly after the war as demonstrated by the growth of socialized and national medical system. The systems of taxation in Europe has mostly prevented the growth of a class of aristocrats of wealth like the Robber Barons and the current similar wealth-based class who now skim the surplus wealth made created by workers to add to their own power. (All the wealth created by improved productivity since 1980 have gone to the wealthy aristocrats of the top 2% or maybe 5%. The recovery since the Bush Recession has ALL gone to the wealthy. Labor has not recovered proportionately and has in fact dropped back in share of the income.)

    One last point. Wealth can be measured and compared. Power cannot. Prices in markets are set by relative power of buyers and sellers, but that is ignored by policy makers because power is invisible. Only its results can be viewed.

  • Rick B on February 20, 2013 4:27 PM:

    This information is not discussed because the wealthy conservatives own the mass media. Instead Libertarianism - the study of economics with no consideration of power - is the philosophy the American wealthy want spread.

    And family-friendly policies take power away from the wealthy and give it to families.

  • c u n d gulag on February 20, 2013 4:43 PM:

    It's one thing when leaders propose to lead on something - but, first, they need people to make it worth their while to take-up the issue in the first place.

    With the destruction of the middle class virtually complete after 12 years of Reagan/Bush, with a an interlude for 8 years under Clinton, the 8 years of W, came as close to finishing the job as the powers-that-be could come in the time alloted.

    People only care about keeping what they have - not expanding anything.
    And this is what the purpose of the destruction of the middle class was: to take the power of the middle class, and move it up.

    All Americans started to get too "uppity" in the 60's and early 70's, and needed to be reminded of their place in societ.
    And, now the work is almost complete. The middle class that remains is silent, hoping not to lose what they have. The poor ain't got any power to demand jack-sh*t, and the rich have the run of the table.

    Without people demanding rights, no politician in his right mind will challenge the ones with all of the real rights - the rich.

    And so, President Obama is mum on this subject.

    If we want him to take action, we'll have to make him.

    But, who's going to raise their head in these perilous economic times, and put it in the cross-hairs?
    People with nothing to lose.
    And those with nothing to lose, have no power to affect those with SOMEthing to lose.

    This is what has been happening on all fronts, ever since Nixon came in, to stem the tide of money and power moving to the middle class, and away from the Oligarchs.

    We can say they're evil, even stupid and self-destructive in the long run, but we can't say they've been unsuccessful.

  • boatboy_srq on February 20, 2013 4:50 PM:

    I'm caught between Josef K and Peter C.

    It seems these days our electoral choice falls between the indifferent (or marginally competent) and the malevolent/sociopathic. On the one hand, Dems seem to be more focused on treading water than actually getting somewhere; on the other the GOTea seems compelled to return the US to somewhere part-Counter-Reformation and part-Medieval/Old-Testament-Biblical era. Given the choice, while I'm hardly happy with it, I'll take indifferent over malevolent any day.

    It is troubling, though, that the Dems have focused on so many issues yet left this one alone. My favorite saying about the last 50 years is that the US has gone from working fewer hours than the French and being more productive than the Japanese - to working more hours than the Japanese and being less productive than the French. Much of that transition can be laid squarely at the feet of politico-economic forces that held down wages for the last thirty-odd years, but more than a little comes from a business mindset (instilled into both students and those just eentering the workplace) that more work equals a better employee, and that things like substantial clocked overtime and banked vacation hours are signs of a good worker bee. So far, while the GOTea is better at singing the virtues of this transition, the Dems haven't been shy about going along, and few have dared question the trend openly.

    We traded our parents' vision of a future where everyone had the free time to enjoy plentiful recreation for one where if you took the time to do more than eat and sleep you wouldn't get past the middle of the pack, let alone get to the top. Worker productivity is Business' new god: the robots, computers and other artifacts of 21st century business, which were supposed to make our jobs easier, are instead pushing us out of the workplace altogether, and unless you can keep pace and improve your per-employee productivity year-on-year, as a business you're not likely to attract investors and as an employee you're finished.

    None of this, placed in the context of the rise of FundiEvangelism and a radical reinterpretation of the PWE, should surprise anyone: if The Elect™ are discernible from their opulence, then of course everyone who believes that fantasy is going to work his/her a## off to afford the conspicuous consuption required to at least give the illusion of Election. BLEEP the vacation, the dinners not at your desk, the family life, the kids' homework: what matters is Mammon, and how much of it you can grab before you're used up and shipped off to a nursing home. And Gawd help you if you're one of those Other people who Gawd™ told his Prophets™ weren't supposed to get ahead in the first place.

    Add to this the assumption that women are somehow inferior/subordinate/innately-evil, and any suggestion that work should accommodate them is instantly out of the question; the lack of progress is in no small part attributable to a hetero, male perspective on society (and Scripture). "Legitimate rape" wouldn't be a term in the language if women weren't somehow not supposed to think for themselves, make their own decisions, or [gasp] earn their own income (unless it's their share of Daddy's Trust Fund): if the Teahad had all its own way, the only "labor" associated with women would be between a woman and her OBGYN. Yet at the same time, for most of the US, a multi-income family is not only the norm, but a necessity; and so far the GOTea has yet to wrestle with that dichotomy in any meaningful - or convincing - manner.

    So, yes: the US is dead last in family-workplace balance race. Big surprise. The only places where family-workplace balance is measurable worse prevent women from owning propety, driving their own cars, etc. And if the Teahad had its way they'd take us somewhere not dissimilar. The only reason we're not already there is that Dems have been able to hold off the worst of th

  • Ron Byers on February 20, 2013 4:52 PM:

    Family friendly workplaces? Hell, we don't even have worker friendly workplaces. Workers are competing with robots in the workplace and the robots are winning.

  • AMS on February 20, 2013 5:22 PM:

    When I was a working mother with two daughters 30+ years ago, I hoped things would be easier for them. Now both of them are new mothers, back at work, and things have only gotten harder. Much harder. Raising kids is more expensive than ever (college tuition alone has skyrocketed) and even the meager steps business and government took in my generation to support working families have been stalled or reversed. Two incomes are now more necessary than ever (imagine what the beleaguered middle class would look like without women's incomes), causing many to delay or forego children out of concern that they simply couldn't cope with both kids and jobs.

    There are a number of reasons for the absence of this issue from public discussion but I think the two most important are the weak economy and a hardening ideology that equates individualism with freedom. When jobs are scarce, as they are now and have been at least since 2008, employers hold the whip hand. They know it and employees know it. In that context, employers have no incentive to make any accommodation for working families and employees fear to ask for "special treatment." Keep your head low and keep your job is the mantra. The second factor is our culture's deeply ingrained individualism, which has only increased, especially on the right. In this formulation, having children is strictly a personal choice and strictly a personal responsibility. Neither employers, government, nor civil society as a whole has any obligation to help parents and each family is completely on its own. Accommodations by employers are "inefficient" and therefore to be deplored by the market. Mandates from the government are nanny-statism meddling, left-wing social engineering, and interference with free enterprise and are also to be deplored.

    It's interesting that this issue is coming up at the same time as a flurry of hand-wringing articles about America's low birth rate. The authors of these articles worry about a lack of enough future workers to power our economy and pay the taxes that support programs for older citizens. They fear a demographic imbalance of old vs. young that stifles creativity and innovation. Here we see that all those individual choices about having children add up to significant effects on the country as a whole. Wouldn't it make sense, then, to enact public policies so that having and raising children isn't so damn hard?

  • FlipYrWhig on February 20, 2013 6:55 PM:

    Nothing good is going to happen in terms of improving the lot of workers and workers' families until the economy improves. The same is true of the environment. Anything that can be framed as Democrats wanting to make things harder for businesses will be framed that way, and the first ones who will get skittish will be DLC/Blue Dog/"fiscal conservative" Democrats in red states. That's what always happens. Until there's a way to spin family leave, or gender equality and equity more generally, as good for business, it's not going to get any higher off the ground than it is now.

  • joanneinDenver on February 21, 2013 11:23 AM:

    I just became a grandmother at the same time as my step mother-in-law had pneumonia, at the age of 96. My daughter-in-law was able to take the 12 weeks of leave. Her insurance paid for a lactation consultant by phone. She had many physical limitations because the birth was by C-Section. It was family that had to provide all the services that she needed to take care of a new born and recover from surgery. Her own mother was limited in the time she could donate because she had to use her FMLA time to support another seriously ill grandchild. Neither my daughter-in-law's nor any government services provided the kind of clinical and/or in-home support that she needed.

    In contrast, my mother-in-law was in the hospital for five days and then transferred to a rehab center for two weeks. When she was released to her subsidized housing, she received daily nurse visits, twice weekly physical therapy and government provided transportation to her doctor. All of these services were subsidized by taxpayers. She has made a complete recovery.

    What is wrong with these two scenarios? It is obvious that we as a culture have chosen to support the elderly and not the young.

    Now, I read the NY Times article. I thought it was good. But, I would offer this perspective. First of all, all the studies on women and work and motherhood are done by professional women who maintained their careers during motherhood.
    That is why they are in a position to do the research. Secondly, the assumption in the article is, of course, how to accommodate mothers (and fathers) in the
    work place. The studies do not look at what does a infant/child/ need? What does a mother/family need to provide that for a child? The question is not rhetorical.

    The reason they don't is political. The assumption is that women must work. But, babies/children can not be parked in lockers for 8 to 12 hours a day. Someone must take care of them. That someone must be paid. There is an assumption that somehow economies of scale in daycare resolve the problem.
    But the daycare employees are usually women making minimum wage. What about their children?

    Why don't we subsidize mothers at home? That is not a rhetorical question. My answer: Daycare is a multi-billion dollar industry and has the best lobbyists in the country.

  • low-tech cyclist on February 21, 2013 11:43 AM:

    Thank you for bringing this up, Kathleen - this is an issue that's been on my radar for years.

    To Coontz' list, I'd add that we have no minimum annual leave requirement, no sick leave requirement (practically every other developed country has both), and our overtime pay law is riddled with holes.