This article is one in a series of arguments on the family in our summer issue.
We are in a moment when fundamental transformations in the way we live and work are possible. And it’s promising that issues long neglected—the crisis of care, the undervaluation of the work of social reproduction, and the corrosive, life-sapping stresses on poor families—are on the Biden administration’s radar.
Yet worrisome motifs keep surfacing in family policy debate. I wince every time Biden’s American Families Plan is defended as “putting women back to work,” or boosting “productivity” and making the United States more competitive by upping women’s “labor force participation.” Why are only employed women considered productive and a boon to the economy? The overreliance on a market rationale for family policy is a dangerous road to travel if our desired end is valuing the work of caregiving regardless of where it occurs.
Just as troubling is the failure to make clear that direct cash subsidies to families with dependents, whether or not there is a wage earner in the household, are as crucial as government investments in the care economy aimed at facilitating market work (child care, pre-K, elder care). These are two sides of the same care coin and must be seen as inseparable. Taken together, such programs value care work inside and outside the home, lessen economic anxiety for families, boost the well-being of adults and children, and give caregivers, especially women, more control over where and when they work.
But it’s not just how the programs are sometimes spun that’s a problem. There’s a huge underdeveloped piece in all of Biden’s major proposals: making jobs more family friendly. Raising pay is, of course, absolutely essential to creating family-friendly jobs, and it’s gratifying, after almost a half-century of economic nonsense, to see the Democrats and the liberal intellectual classes applaud the Fight for $15 and rediscover the economic virtues of worker power. Yet if families are to thrive, the way we work must change too. That means paying attention to time as well as money.
Worker demands for shorter hours and fair wages have long animated male-led labor movements in the United States, as elsewhere. Less well known are the efforts of labor women to refashion these core trade union tenets into a sophisticated feminist family politics. Most relevant for contemporary purposes are the comprehensive and far-seeing proposals put forward by leading women labor activists after the Second World War.
Labor women’s family policy starts from the premise that involuntary market work is a problem for working-class women of all races. Employers and policymakers have never valued the homes and children of the working classes as much as they did those of middle-class white women. As a result, working-class women have had to fight for the right to family time and time apart from the market as well as the right to income and a job. Working-class women are not more “conservative” or family-oriented than other women. But the home-job calculus is different for an income-strapped mother facing the prospect of cleaning animal entrails in a slaughterhouse than it is for a professional woman contemplating a lucrative, rewarding career.
Mid-century labor feminists pursued a package of reforms to boost household income and give working-class women more control over their time. Women, like men, they insisted, deserved a market wage sufficient for self-support and the support of dependents. Strengthening unions, enacting higher legislative wage minimums, and securing equal pay for equal work raised wages and allowed for more time apart from employment. Labor women achieved some significant victories in the fight for wage justice, including the first federal Equal Pay Act in 1963, aimed at ending wage disparities based on sex, and, in 1966, the extension minimum wage coverage to millions of workers in service, government, and agricultural jobs for the first time.
But they also believed that increasing social wages, or income to individuals and families from the state, was as important as increasing market wages. With religious groups opposed (unlike in many other nations), business and anti-state conservatives apoplectic, and labor men ambivalent, they made less progress in this area. Nonetheless, labor women called for, and at times even won, various forms of social wages for caregiving: expanded federal aid to families with dependent children, unemployment and disability insurance for pregnant women and mothers, state supported child-care centers, a federal child-care tax deduction, paid maternity leave with job guarantees, and increases in Social Security family and survivor benefits.
They wanted more. Lifting the burden of what they called the “double day”—working long hours in both family work and employment—required limits on employer power over work time. For the labor feminists who served on President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, overwork and work time inflexibility were just as pressing as underpay and underemployment. Addie L. Wyatt of the Packinghouse Workers, Mary Callahan of the International Union of Electrical Workers, and other labor women pushed for strengthening the hour limitations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and extending to men the maximum hour protections of the forty-three state laws covering women. What they termed the “woman standard” should be used as a model for all workers, they believed. Both sexes needed the right to say “no” to involuntary overtime and long hours without losing their jobs.
Kennedy’s commission, composed of labor women as well as senators, cabinet members, university presidents, high-level business leaders, and male union officials, rejected the women’s proposals for covering men under the stricter work time regulations of state laws. Instead, it recommended “premium pay” provisions as the major deterrent to “excessive hours,” a policy rendered ineffective because employers found it cheaper to pay overtime than hire additional workers. Woman-only state hour laws did become “gender neutral” in the 1970s, but they were harmonized downward, lowering hour protections for everyone.
Today, hour laws are in dire need of overhaul. The double day has morphed into the three-job day, with disastrous consequences for family health and well-being. Americans now spend more time in the labor force than the residents of almost any other industrialized nation, including Japan, famous for its culture of overwork. And with the rise of just-in-time scheduling and the continuing shift of decision-making upward, worker control over work time has plummeted.
Fair scheduling laws are cropping up around the country; they are a good start, and more should be encouraged. Yet people require a wide variety of work time arrangements. In a fairer, more humane time regime, workers would have more power to set their own schedules without risk of job loss and economic ruin.
Time and money are at the center of the family policy we need. The best policies would lift household income by raising pay and social wages. They would value work wherever it takes place and make family-friendly jobs a priority. Only then will it be possible for all families to flourish.
Dorothy Sue Cobble is distinguished professor emerita of history and labor studies at Rutgers University. Her most recent book is For the Many: American Feminists and the Global Fight for Democratic Equality.