Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., April 23, 24 or 25
State and city “victories bring hard-won and badly needed relief to working families, create economic security and opportunity, and improve public health,” says NPWF executive director Debra Ness.
Some progress symbolizes steps toward balancing the conflicting demands of work and family, which have pushed and pulled everyday working people for decades. For about 50 years, judgmental conservatives have bemoaned the loss of old-fashioned bedrock morals – “family values” was the buzz phrase for awhile – and for their part progressives blamed family breakdown on economic injustice, and there’s some merit there. After all, the country’s post-war economy saw a dramatic rise in both productivity and pay, letting working people increasingly move from a partnership approach operating a farm or store and adopting a middle-class model of working dads and stay-at-home moms.
But there’s more to the transformation.
Johns Hopkins University social policy professor Andrew Cherlin, author of the new book “Labor’s Love Lost,” shows that economic shifts after World War II did undermine traditional working-class households, apart from “culture-war” politicians scolding families for not fitting that old situation.
In the 1980s, led by conservatives, post-war reforms and stability started changes, worsened by off-shoring jobs and companies adopting a “permanent replacement” strategy to lawful work stoppages.
Further, women increasingly joining the labor force – at one time less frequent because of sexist attitudes or even policies – today is hardly a choice. Single incomes are rarely enough to make ends meet. And along with women working alongside men, households face rising child-care costs, etc. Such burdens contributed to delayed, then falling, marriage rates.
However, Cherlin says that instead of either falling family values or rising economic injustice, change itself stresses families. At work, the nation’s manufacturing base declined, and the percentage of workers organized into unions fell. At home, marriage and children started occurring later, and that was due less to a rejection of marriage as an institution or sacrament than a rational position: waiting for financial stability.
The real dilemma, from Cherlin’s perspective, isn’t change. It’s BAD change.
“The problem of the fall of the working-class family from its mid-century peak is not that the male-breadwinner family has declined,” he says. “The problem is that nothing stable replaced it.”
In The Nation, Michelle Chen explained, “Cherlin suggests that to move social policy in a progressive direction, state institutions need to fulfill the social needs that used to tether people to the institution of marriage. Families of all varieties, single or coupled, married or not, need support.”
Indeed, workers need good jobs that support families. In Illinois, a law that took effect this winter says, “Employers must make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s medical or common condition related to pregnancy or childbirth if the employee requests such an accommodation, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.”
(Cynics may notice the phrase “undue hardship” and see a loophole companies can exploit. That’s a rational reaction.)
“The biggest barrier seems to be the stubbornness of employers and the stereotypical notion that a pregnant woman is ‘not fit’ for work,” Chen says. “Working-class women are less likely to have the kinds of jobs that accommodate to pregnancies and to child -are responsibilities. Yet given the declining wages of working-class men, the need for working-class women to work is greater than ever. But the lack of workplace flexibility that working-class women often face makes it very difficult to combine wage-earning with pregnancy or child care.”
Modest successes at state and local levels aren’t enough, says NPWF’s Ness, and hopes for the Republican-dominated 114th Congress are dim. But the need for a national policy remains.
“Millions of workers are still without the right to earn paid sick days, guarantees of any wage replacement when they need to take family or medical leave, and protections against pay and pregnancy discrimination,” Ness says. “Congress needs to step up and pass laws that will make all our country's workplaces more fair and family friendly and strengthen the economy.”
NPFW points out that less than 40 percent of private-sector workers earn paid sick days, the same percent lacks paid medical leave, and just 12 percent have paid family leave.
“Many pregnant women are fired or forced off their jobs when they need minor accommodations to continue working,” NPFW adds. “State and local progress has a tremendously positive impact, but a patchwork of laws is not enough. That's why efforts to pass family-friendly workplace laws at all levels continue.”
[PICTURED: Illustration from the the National Partnership for Women and Families.]