Americans have long been stuck in an unfinished revolution for women’s equality. Even though women now make up nearly half the workforce, we are “leaning in” to jobs with longer hours and without a national system of good care for our young.
In the majority of households with young children today, all the adults work. Yet while researchers share exciting discoveries about busy baby brains and the importance of emotional closeness and mental stimulation, much childcare suffers from interruption and distraction. Caregivers are poorly paid, often lack training, and turnover is high. Workplace reforms to shorten the workday or allow flexibility for family demands have also been slow in coming, and for hourly workers, work hours have grown more uncertain and ill paid.
In my 1989 book The Second Shift I called this a stalled revolution, never dreaming we’d still be stuck in it over a quarter of a century later. In truth, we’re out of the old stall and into a new one. Twenty-five years ago, the obstacles we faced were across the board. Men married to women who worked full time weren’t sharing the work at home. The workplace was not “family friendly” and the government didn’t authorize family leave of any sort. Today, we’ve moved into a split-level stall. We’ve made real progress in the private realm—many men are changing diapers and vacuuming rugs without compromising their male identities. The hold-up is in the public sphere, especially federal support for childcare.
Congress controls the agenda and the public purse strings, and has moved farther and farther to the right. It has taken many programs—including those that would improve childcare—off the table. Among many Republican congressmen, the talk instead is about how many cabinet-level departments to abolish—Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, the EPA—not to mention federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Many even deride Michelle Obama’s fight against junk food and obesity and threaten to cut off its funding. So while many of us have moved forward in our personal lives, we’ve moved backward in the public sphere.
So what next? The first step is to put the basic issue of the family back on the table. I am referring not to “family values”—the affirmation of one kind of family—but to the value of the well-being of the family. While our nation is increasingly split between left and right, those on both sides probably agree that it’s good for children to find in their families a sympathetic ear for their problems, a healthy lifestyle, encouragement for school work, and a mood of relative harmony. We could agree on the value of family.
So the question arises: which public policies lead to the well-being of families, and which don’t? The philosophy guiding public policy on the right—one that goes unquestioned in the mainstream media—links the “free market” to “family values.” But what do we really know about the link between free-market policies and the value of family?
The Free Market and the Value of Family
Luckily, we can turn to a rich trove of research for answers. One landmark study—a 2007 UNICEF report on the twenty-one most affluent countries in the world—compared the well-being of children in nations that embraced free-market policies with that of children in nations that did not. The study compared children with regard to their material well-being, health, education, family and peer relations, risks they encounter, and their subjective well-being. The highest ratings for overall child well-being went to the Netherlands and Scandinavia, which tax the rich, regulate commerce, and provide public services such as paid parental leave—that is, they do not pursue free-market policies. The lowest overall ranking went to the nations that do—the United States and the United Kingdom. Both ranked in the bottom third for five of the six key dimensions of child well-being. Among the countries studied, the United States ranked dead last on child poverty and ranked next to last in “family and peer relations” and “behaviors and risks,” the latter of which includes the likelihood of a child skipping breakfast, becoming fat, smoking pot, or getting pregnant. In fact, among the twenty-one nations, American girls had the highest rate of teen pregnancy.
Many of us assume that the richer the country, the better off its children. But by themselves, neither the wealth of a nation nor a higher proportion of stay-at-home mothers improve the well-being of children. The United States is richer than Spain, but American children are worse off than Spanish ones. Norway has the highest proportion of women in paid work but also one of the highest—it ranked seven out of the twenty-one nations—rates of child well-being. The United States, which has a lower proportion of women in paid work, also ranks much lower on the overall well-being of its children.
When I mention these findings to my students or to the American audiences I address, I often hear people say “Little Norway can help its working parents. It only has 5 million people. But you can’t pull that off in the United States with its population of 320 million.” But the sheer size of a nation has no effect on the well-being of its children. Germany, with a population of 82 million, scores higher on child well-being than Austria, whose population is only 8 million. Taken together, the children of the 500-million-strong European Union—which now includes many of the poorer nations of Eastern Europe—fare better than those in the United States.
Other conservative skeptics argue that the high proportion of poor minorities in the United States is responsible for the country’s low scores on child well-being. Although it is hard to compare minority populations, France and Germany are home to roughly the same proportion of immigrants as the United States. Yet both nations still score higher on child well-being than the United States. Something more profound than wealth, size, mothers in paid work, and diversity of population is going on.
And that something is the size of the gap between rich and poor, according to an important 2009 study by British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. In their book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, the authors focused on the twenty-three wealthiest countries in the world. They then divided these countries into “high-gap” nations (with a large discrepancy between the richest and poorest 20 percent) and “low-gap” ones. They then compared more equal with less equal on a range of characteristics indicating distress: violence, drug abuse, obesity, mental illness, teen births, suicide, levels of social trust, school performance, social mobility, infant mortality rates, overall health, and life expectancy. On nearly every measure of well-being, the low-gap nations were far better off.
One little-known fact emerged: the social class of an individual family mattered less to its health than the egalitarian nature of the surrounding society. A middle-class person in a low-gap society is likely to be healthier than a middle-class person (that is, someone with the same income) in a high-gap society. It is not even a nation’s degree of poverty that causes these unhappy rates, the authors argue—although this obviously matters—but the gap between the rich and the poor itself. And this gap can be changed only through public policy, and, ultimately, the understanding of such facts by those who elect policy makers.
High-gap nations have homicide rates ten times that of low-gap nations, eight times as many teen births, and three times as many suffering from mental illness, even when, the authors point out, other possible reasons for such differences are ruled out. Populations in high-gap societies are less likely than those in low-gap societies to trust others; they worry more about muggings and rape, their children are exposed to more violence, and they live in countries with larger prison systems. Within the United States, the authors also compared low-gap states, such as Vermont and Minnesota, with high-gap ones, such as Texas and Louisiana, where homicide, teen pregnancy, and high-school dropout rates are high.
Surprisingly, the conservative writer Charles Murray has provided support for Wilkinson and Pickett’s thesis. In his 2012 book Coming Apart: The State of White America, Murray traces changes that took place between 1960 and 2010, during which the United States shifted from being a low-gap society to a high-gap one. He compares the top 20 percent of non-Hispanic whites in the United States (those with bachelor’s degrees or higher, employed as managers or professionals) with the bottom 30 percent (those with no more than high school diplomas, who hold blue-collar or low-level white-collar jobs).
Murray found that life for white families at the top had changed little. In 1960 most whites at the top were married, went to church, took pride in their work, and were attached to their communities. The majority of children were born to married mothers, and most couples raised their kids together. And that’s how their counterparts fifty years later looked too.
But families at the bottom were in turmoil; their lives had changed for the worse. Twenty-two percent of lower-income white mothers were now single, compared to just 3 percent in 1960. Unemployed white men tended to reject offers of low-wage jobs and were also absent fathers. Few used their free time to take classes or help with housework. Compared to their counterparts in 1960, they slept longer and watched more television.
Missing from Murray’s account is a deeper emotional truth about the average blue-collar white American man. His sleep and his television-bingeing may be less a loss of morals than of morale. The rich often isolate themselves from the poor, but the poor tune in to the lifestyles of the rich. On television, he sees ads for high-end vacations, scuba diving in Belize, skiing in Switzerland, whizzing through the Arizona desert in a luxury car. But with a steep decline in wages over the last three decades, all this seems increasingly out of reach. Unable to support a family on his own wage as his father and grandfather once had, the blue-collar man finds himself at the bottom in a high-gap society. In the new global economy, his competition is in China, India, and Mexico, far outside the local setting that once sustained him. It is not simply blue-collar jobs that have exited the country, but a blue-collar way of life, and as I argue in a forthcoming book, a blue-collar self. Their loss of place in the economy, of honor and identity, may well be linked to the rising rate of drug abuse, and even suicide among white, middle-aged men. Fostering this, if not causing it, is a world without safety nets: the “free market.” Needless to say, the frightening realities that white men now confront have long impacted minority men and women.
Conservatives claim that deregulation is good for business, and therefore, good for families. But this claim bears a closer look. In the United States, for example, television and internet commercials for high-sugar, high-fat, and/or high-salt foods target kids and are unregulated. The increase in unregulated advertising for junk food has been directly traced to the drastic increase in childhood obesity: according to one study, obesity increased for every hour of television or video viewed by low-income preschoolers between the ages of one and five.
Deregulation exacerbates other problems too. Due to staff cuts in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and lower standards for safety, workers labor in riskier conditions: a nurse is more likely to be stuck with an unclean needle, a construction worker may step onto flimsier scaffolding, a miner is more likely to enter an unsafe mine. A poorly protected environment produces diseased plants and animals, and potentially contaminated food. These are the downsides of a free market, and they’re factors that put families at risk.
Proponents of free-market policies also call for cuts in the public sector. Cuts in library hours, hikes in museum fees, or the closing of public parks—all these hurt families. Cuts to other programs directed specifically toward poor young mothers ultimately hurt their children and make their subsequent care more expensive to the state. The federal Nurse-Family Partnership program, for example, offers monthly visits over three years for poor—often young and unmarried—mothers. This program has reduced child abuse, neglect, and injury to children by anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. It has also motivated mothers to return to school and find jobs while reducing the number of subsequent births. According to a 2015 report, the Nurse-Family Partnership program saves $5.70 for every dollar it spends.
So a free-market agenda exerts a double squeeze on families. On one side, economic inequality and deregulation place heavy strains on families. On the other, cuts in services reduce support for families coping with such strains. It is this squeeze that explains the great gap between the United States and most of Europe when it comes to the well-being of our children.
The Red States and the Stalled Revolution
What can be done? The first step is to educate ourselves about the many ways public policies affect our private lives. The second step is to ignite a conversation about it.
But conversations can be hard. For high “empathy walls,” as I call them in a forthcoming book, have risen in the last few decades between the right and the left in the United States. Not only has political opinion split and hardened, we’re also more likely to live among like-minded neighbors and get our news from sources that confirm our views. So it has become more difficult to reach “across the aisle” in our schools and neighborhoods. But though Congress is gridlocked, grassroots conversations don’t have to be. We’ve already found common ground on the need to reduce incarceration and even, to a limited extent, on how we should tackle climate change.
Paradoxically, the Americans who most need help live in red states. For Republican states are poorer, suffer worse health, higher rates of school dropouts, and incarceration. They also have a higher proportion of teen moms, and single and divorced parents. More red-state mothers hold low-wage jobs in workplaces that do not offer family-friendly schedules or paid parental leave. Their elected officials also call for free-market policies that, studies suggest, hurt the very families they are supposed to help.
So what is the fate of initiatives like the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, currently in Congress? This program, introduced by Iowa Democratic senator Tom Harkin, calls for advanced training for teachers of three- and four-year-olds and pay in line with salaries for public grade-school teachers. This would be an expensive bill, costing $10 billion a year for ten years in order to offer low- and moderate-income parents with four-year-olds voluntary access to high quality preschool programs.
Surprisingly, a 2014 poll suggests bipartisan support for the bill—84 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans favor it. But organizing a red-blue coalition supporting ample, high-quality childcare will still take a great deal of work, for the nation’s needs are increasingly out of whack with the nation’s mood—a mood that links free-market policies with the well-being of the family. It will require people on opposite sides of a tall political fence to get to know and respect one another, and realize that people with different worldviews can agree about the value of family. Maybe if we start with four-year-olds, our public policy will finally catch up with our private lives.
Arlie Hochschild is the author of The Second Shift and The Outsourced Self. Her next book, Strangers in Their Own Land: A Journey into the Heart of the Right, is due out in the fall of 2016 from The New Press. This article is adapted from the lead essay in her collection, So How’s the Family? And Other Essays (University of California Press, 2013).