What it takes to be pro-family in an age of rising inequality

Anyone remember the 1980s and 1990s, when social conservatives called themselves “pro-family” and complained that women spent too much time in the workplace? If you are as old as I am — or older (ahem) — you likely recall those decades’ manifestations of the culture wars.

Truth be told, many American moms never fit the stay-at-home model. They worked in factories, restaurants, offices, hotels, classrooms and hospitals.

Still, the old culture war days looked back to a time when many families had one wage earner. With time, having a family supported by one paycheck became much harder to achieve, but not because of social pressures to work.

Instead, families had no choice because of the loss of jobs with good wages and benefits, increasing stagnation of wages and growing economic inequality. These economic shifts did not just happen, but resulted from broader forces, such as globalization, and from policies fostering a global race to the bottom for wages, undermining labor unions, lowering effective tax rates for the most wealthy and promoting corporations’ political power.

As workers have an increasingly difficult time earning a living wage from service jobs at big box stores and the like, many remain afloat because they get help from government to buy food and receive health care.

Their circumstances in 2014 are reminiscent of what the Supreme Court said in a 1937 decision upholding a minimum wage: “The exploitation of a class of workers who are in an unequal position with respect to bargaining power, and are thus relatively defenseless against the denial of a living wage, is not only detrimental to their health and wellbeing, but casts a direct burden for their support upon the community. What these workers lose in wages, the taxpayers are called upon to pay.”

In any case, the days of the single-wage earner family able to enjoy vacations and save for retirement have faded away. And, since mothers working at jobs and starting businesses have become utterly common, something interesting happened with the politics of supporting parents’ ability to stay home with their kids.

So who is pro-family? It’s liberals who address job flexibility and policies for work-family balance. In contrast, conservatives fret that Americans, including mothers, don’t work hard and long enough, and they have no policy agenda for enabling parents to spend more time with their children.

Today the United States remains far behind the rest of the world in pro-family policies, as our law requires very limited help for new parents and people with sick family members. Our major national policy, the Family and Medical Leave Act, was adopted in early 1993, as the first bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

While new parents in other nations have at least several months of paid maternity (and often, paternity) leave, the FMLA originally required only six weeks of unpaid leave. Its benefit is that you keep your insurance while you’re on leave and can’t be fired for taking a leave, but many can’t afford to take unpaid leave.

Now, the Affordable Care Act makes it easier for families to have a parent spend more time with their kids or for an adult to care for a parent or other relative. People can keep high-quality, affordable health insurance while decreasing the number of hours worked. Such a family would still need to tighten its belt and make sacrifices, but they could have someone work less for awhile.

Today a family of four living in Bangor with an annual income of $70,000 can buy insurance through the federal marketplace, www.healthcare.gov, and obtain a silver plan for as little as $517/month. If the mother cut her hours and earned $20,000 less each year, the family’s silver-level insurance could cost as low as $248/month. Between lower insurance costs and no longer needing to pay for babysitting, the family would have at least $11,000 less in expenses.

This greater job flexibility also aids people starting their own businesses or assisting their families with babysitting or taking care of someone who’s sick. Insurance coverage, whether through private insurance, Medicaid, Medicare or Tricare, prevents medical bankruptcies, keeps people healthier and saves lives.

Talking about being pro-family is one thing. But in standing for flexibility, supporters of the Affordable Care Act put pro-entrepreneur and pro-family policies in action.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.