From "Having It All" to Honoring Both: Policies that Make Space for Family and Work

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During election cycles, politicians frequently wrap themselves in the language of family. “Family talk” evokes one of our most potent national narratives-- the American dream-- in which all citizens are promised the opportunity to work, build a family, and offer their children a better life than they had.

In this year’s election, “family talk” has been less optimistic. One candidate’s convention acceptance speech referenced family principally in commiserating with the families of victims of violence and terror. The other candidate speaks often of “working families” - an accurate term but not one of aspiration.

Though less optimistic, this “family talk” has become surprisingly specific in the past several weeks. Both presidential candidates have advanced proposals for paid family leave and child care and even outlined the structure and funding for these proposals. This move away from the gauzy family imagery of campaigns past provides a fresh opportunity for Christians to reflect on God’s intentions for family, the relationship of families to our broader political community, and what role government has relative to family. 

How Are Families Faring?

The famous “Morning in America” ad aired by Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1984 is quintessential American family as American dream. “...This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married,” the narrator intones, “and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future.”[1] In this America, families are thriving, buying homes, and looking forward to the future.

Today, family life looks different.

Homeownership is at a fifty-year low. Marriage rates have declined, particularly for individuals with less education and less income. A growing portion of American children are born to unmarried parents, with the rate exceeding half for parents under age thirty. Surveys indicate that people who are parents are much less happy than those who aren’t and American parents are unhappier than parents in many other countries. Half of working fathers and nearly 40 percent of working mothers feel that they spend too little time with their children. Overall, the evidence suggests that many families are discouraged in their ability to secure the traditional milestones of household success (marriage, a home, a stable job) even as they stretch to manage the daily practicalities of family life, from keeping up with the bills to keeping an eye on their kids. 

The strain on American families has direct impact on children. Social scientists increasingly agree that parental attachment and a stable home life improve child well-being. Stresses on family life likely widen the growing opportunity gap between children born into low-income and upper-income families. In 2015, the Center for Public Justice discussed the importance of early development for children overall in the book Unleashing Opportunity, which urged us to face “the reality that many low-income children start from behind the day they are born.”[2]

Family Well-being: A Private or Public Responsibility?

Given these sobering realities, is there a role for public policy in enabling families to better care for their children? Are we responsible only for the persons to whom - by sacrament, adoption, or blood - we are related? Or is the health of American families a matter of public concern as well? One strain of political thought says no, believing that family is a private institution and it’s up to families to thrive or fail on their own terms. 

A Christian-democratic approach, along with many other Christian political traditions, affirms both the personal and public importance of family. Much Christian political thought identifies families as a foundational social unit. In practical terms, family is the location of deep personal development, our emotional, mental, and spiritual formation. As Andy Crouch noted, “family is culture at its smallest - and its most powerful.”[3]

But family has never been a self-enclosed bubble. Though foundational, the family is also deeply embedded within a wide range of other institutions: extended families, religious and geographic communities, the economy, schools, the state, and places of employment.[4] The health of these institutions influences and contributes to the health of families. In turn, families help to form the persons who populate communities, civic institutions, government, and workplaces. Pope John Paul II described the interdependence between family and society in the 1981 exhortation Familiaris Consortio:

It is from the family that citizens come to birth and it is within the family that they find the first school of social virtues that are the animating principle of the existence and the development of society itself.[5]

Because of the close relationship between family and society, government rightfully acts to support families and family caretaking for the sake of the common good.[6]

The Conflict Between Family Life and the Structure of Work

The family-supportive policies proposed by politicians often aim either to promote marriage or enhance families’ financial resources. Both approaches have value. But they are incomplete without attention to the connections between families and other areas of life - especially family’s relationship to work. (“Work” in this article refers to paid work in its conventional sense, with the understanding that family caregiving is also a form of work, albeit unpaid.)

To bear the image of God is to work, and this encompasses what we typically consider work -- manufacturing, intellectual effort, creative production -- activities through which a person can earn a living. But it also encompasses parenting and other forms of caregiving, all of which require tireless physical, emotional, and spiritual labor. These activities also proceed from the creative mandate to mirror God’s own creative activity recorded in Genesis.[7]

For many Americans, work and caregiving, both God-given callings, seem in conflict. Both activities draw from the same reservoirs of energy, preparation, and presence. To fulfill the demands of one means to limit the other. Often, work wins out.

The predicament of parents relative to work versus caregiving is often framed in personal terms like “the quest to have it all” or “mommy wars” over parenting choices. But many moderate and lower-income parents experience work-life dilemmas not as a matter of personal choice but of constraint. Nearly 20 percent of all women return to their jobs within weeks of giving birth, often because they can’t afford to forgo a paycheck for more than a few days or weeks. Three quarters of mothers in low-income communities work non-standard or irregular hours that keep them away from children during critical out-of-school hours or juggling complex child care arrangements. When surveyed, the majority of parents with non-standard shifts said they would choose a different schedule if they could.[8]

For many, the only work available (if it is available) is structured in ways that interfere directly with parents’ calling to family. So the conflict between work and family boils down, in part, to a conflict between the structure of work and the requirements of family caregiving. There are at least two major and interrelated ways that the structure of work conflicts with family life: 1) many jobs are structured in an all-or-nothing manner that permits little flexibility to workers with concurrent family responsibilities, and 2) work can come to dominate the rhythm of family life. 

For many Americans, work and caregiving, both God-given callings, seem in conflict.

Many parents want and need to work and must also dedicate significant hours to caregiving. A working father is in charge of his children after they return from school. A working mother who has just given birth plans to nurse and care for a newborn for six months. Neither of these parents fits the model of full-time employment and they face costs as a result. Parents working reduced hours will not likely secure health benefits through their jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 19 percent of part-time jobs provide health benefits (as compared to 80 percent of full-time jobs). A parent can take no more than twelve weeks of leave and be legally assured of keeping her job. But to care for her child full or part time for just a few weeks or months longer, she might have to relinquish her job.[9]

This is the problem of all-or-nothing work. Even if households could afford a reduction in their paychecks in order to dedicate more time to child care (and some cannot), they cannot afford to lose benefits or job security that full-time work often provides. Many contemporary forms of work, and the benefits and incentive structures around work, follow an all-or-nothing model that does not allow for people to pursue both vocations of work and caregiving. 

The second major conflict between the structure of work and family caregiving is the lack of control or flexibility afforded workers in ways that interfere with or dominate the rhythm of family life. Jobs that demand employees to be “on call” for shifts or overtime, rather than providing a consistent schedule, mean that parents must constantly juggle work and child care arrangements. In the words of Jannette Navarro, a single mother and Starbucks employee interviewed by the New York Times, “You’re waiting on your job to control your life.” Her frequently changing shift schedule determined everything, she said, from “how much sleep [my son] will get to what groceries I’ll be able to buy this month.”[10]

According to one survey, two-thirds of low-wage employees have no control over their starting or ending work times.[11] When sociologists Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel examined four occupations in the medical sector - doctors, nurses, EMTs, and nursing assistants - they found that many working-class employees experienced far less control over their schedules.[12] Both doctors and nursing assistants worked significant hours - doctors did so for status whereas nursing assistants worked heavy hours because they faced strict penalties for taking time off. Lower-wage workers are more likely “pressured to put their jobs before any unpredictable events they might face outside of work” including parenting demands. Job types that typically require non-standard or unpredictable hours - retail, health care, and other services - are among the fastest growing in our economy.

Public Policy in Support of Family and Work

The policy conversation about family and work is moving quickly. This month, Donald Trump elaborated a plan to provide paid maternity leave through the unemployment system. Hillary Clinton’s platform includes sweeping proposals to help families with paid family leave and extensive child care subsidy.

The public conversation seems to be catching up with the reality that families and workplaces are interconnected. A tremendous opportunity has opened to consider public policies and workplace cultures that properly value both work and caregiving. Recent movements in state and workplace practices help us envision what this could look like. 

This spring, the state of New York, for example, enacted one of the nation’s strongest paid family leave laws. The law expands New York’s disability insurance system to provide up to twelve weeks of paid leave for new parents as well as to care for one’s own or a family member’s health needs. At full implementation, New York’s law will cover two-thirds of an employee’s wages up to an indexed cap, funded through a payroll tax applied to all employees.

This law is worth noting for several reasons. First, it ensures that access to paid leave benefits (and job protection) are widely available. In most states, employee benefits differ based on the nature and size of their workplace, on whether their employer deploys “best practices” or whether an employee can bargain for the best benefits. New York’s policy advantages lower-skill and lower-wage workers whose jobs rarely provide paid leave and who often lack the bargaining power to secure paid family leave. New York’s system also means that small employers, nonprofits, and even self-employed workers have access to a benefit system without requiring each workplace to implement and fund its own system. Second, the law attempts to replace a sizeable portion of employees’ wages during leave (though some argue that two-thirds is still not enough). States that have previously implemented a paid family leave system have found that too little wage replacement remains a barrier to parents actually taking leave.[13]

Businesses can fulfill their own calling to public justice when they treat employees as full and whole persons, with callings and responsibilities to caregiving as well as to paid work. Costco, the national warehouse retailer, provides health care benefits to both full- and part-time employees. Further, the retailer provides its employees with their schedules at least two weeks in advance, allowing employees who are also caregivers to better manage their dual responsibilities. Businesses can also take a more nuanced approach through policies that help employees work differently during seasons of caregiving rather than penalizing or simply firing those who cannot work full time. The professional services firm, Deloitte, just made headlines for expanding its family leave policy to sixteen weeks and recognizing the range of caregiving responsibilities - such as elder care - that may fall to employees during various seasons of their lives.

Honoring the Calling to Work and Family

In his 2016 book You are What you Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Reformed philosopher James K.A. Smith offers a beautiful and challenging vision of marriage and family as a gift, not just to its members, but to the world, a place of personal formation and also of hospitality and welcome. Smith reminds us that households perform their role through the day-in and day-out routines of family life, creating a “hum that has a tune and is attuned to some end, some telos.”[14] The family-for-the-sake-of-community vision is, for Christians, ultimately truer than the home-owning, wealth-creating family of the American dream. But, for many contemporary families, this “hum” is just as out of reach.

Building a family that advances the flourishing of its own members and of society is a beautiful and challenging task its own right. This task is even more challenging when households are pressed daily to conform to the commands of commerce rather than the call to care. For parents who must take the next shift available, work through homework hours or through the fragile phases of infancy, a “tuneful hum” can easily become a discord of conflicting demands.

Part of government’s God-given role is to uphold right relationships between the various elements of society - including the relationship between family and work. Caregiving and work are both vocations to which men and women are called. The goal is not to disparage either but to protect both. When work is structured in ways that demands a parent’s all, then it has exceeded its rightful calling. Public justice demands the preservation of the time, energy, and presence that each part of life requires.

As we evaluate the various proposals put forward at national, state, and local levels, we should be asking: Is caregiving so important to the whole of society that it merits strong public protections? If so, what aspects and seasons of caregiving should be prioritized? How do we best protect time for both acute caregiving (often at the beginning and ending of life) as well as seasons of ongoing care for pre-school or school-age children, for example? If we understand government as rightfully arbitrating the encroachment of work on caregiving, how should it do so? Should the government mandate family-supportive standards to employers or, instead, sustain a more robust system of social insurance that strengthens parents’ capacity to navigate through different seasons of work and care? Finally, are proposed policies good for all families? For example, do proposed policies support less educated or lower-wage parents and the range of work options available to them, not just professional or well-off parents? 

Part of our challenge is that although family caregiving is undoubtedly a precious form of work, our contemporary culture struggles to account for its value. If our institutions do not protect parenting time, then we allow parenting’s economic price-lessness to define its value. If we don’t make space for caregiving, we dishonor the calling to care, and we do so at tremendous cost.

-Rachel Anderson is a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice. She is an attorney and founder of the Faith & Credit Program at the Center for Responsible Lending.

[1] “Prouder, Stronger, Better”

[2] Michael Gerson, Stephanie Summers, Katie Thompson, Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice. Center for Public Justice. 2015, 26.

[3] Andy Crouch, Culture-Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, 2008, 46.

[4] See Center for Public Justice Guidelines, Family. #5.

[5] John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), 1981, Sec. 42.

[6] See also: Center for Public Justice, Guidelines, Family. #1, #5.

[7] Genesis 1:27-28.

[8] Maria Enchautegui, “Nonstandard Work Schedules and the Well-Being of Low-Income Families,” The Urban Institute. July 2013.

[9] Although a mother is offered in this example, the Family Medical Leave Act, a federal law, protects 12 weeks of leave from work for mothers and fathers alike.

[10] Jodi Kantor, “Working Anything but 9 to 5,” New York Times, 2014.

[11] James Bond, Ellen Galinsky, “Workplace Flexibility and Low-Wage Employees: National Study of the Changing Workforce,” Families and Work Institute, New York (2011) (cited in Heather Boushey, Finding Time. 2016. 79).

[12] Dan Clawson, Naomi Gerstel, Unequal Time: Gender, Class, and Family in Employment Schedules. Russell Sage (2015).

[13] See Elieen Applebaum and Ruth Milkman, “Leaves that Pay: Employer and Worker Experience with Paid Leave in California.” 2011.

[14] For an excerpt, see James K.A. Smith, “Marriage for the Common Good,” Cardus, 2014.