The afternoon is my time to work. I’m writing this next to my sleeping infant son, while my older two kids are yelling downstairs, presumably under my wife’s supervision. Our personal and professional lives have never been so tightly intertwined. This is white-collar working family life in a pandemic.
Relative to so many people, my wife and I are lucky. Our jobs can continue online, and our employers are patient and flexible. But our three-kid, two-income household is still in terrible shape. For all our family’s good fortune, for all our education and privilege, for all the forbearance of our generous and progressive colleagues, there’s still nowhere near enough time in the day. We’re “succeeding” atop a mountain of debt that makes it nearly impossible to ever slow down or step back from work. Things are more difficult now than ever before, but constant and increasing work was already the defining element of the past decade in our household. Work fills our days and creeps into most nights and weekends.
The pandemic is hammering home the utter unsustainability of American working family life. It is forcing many parents and caregivers to confront the precarity we have been living with for so long. The depth and breadth of the crisis facing all sorts of working families right now creates an opportunity for new political alliances that could push for policies to lessen the pressure caregivers face in the United States today. Economic inequality and instability have made nearly all families’ lives tangibly worse.
The COVID-19 pandemic is harming vulnerable populations most of all. But almost no working family is immune from major new pressures, stress, and/or trauma. Workers at the bottom of the American income strata are underpaid and often stuck with inconsistent work schedules. This can make it difficult—and costly—for families in this situation to find reliable child care; it also strains public assistance programs. Meanwhile, workers with higher incomes often shackle themselves to heavy work schedules in order to pay down loans they’ve accumulated on their path to those higher incomes, especially higher education and housing debts.
Americans who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s were told, like generations before them, that if they got educated and worked hard, they would be rewarded with the basics of a middle-class life. But many of the pieces of such a life—an education, housing, healthcare, savings for retirement—cost much more than they used to. And most of today’s young working families entered the labor force in the shadow of the Great Recession or on the eve of our current economic instability. We have little room for any life detours; addiction, a criminal record, or prolonged time spent unemployed or underemployed can prove crippling. And to achieve family stability, we need to anticipate changes in the labor market with 20/20 foresight and pair up with partners whose job(s) take them to the same places at precisely the right time. If you have children during that time, you start an eighteen-year clock to come up with some sort of savings to pay for their increasingly requisite postsecondary education.
Given increasing inequality, rising costs of living, and the heavy strain on those trying to secure a decent living, is it a shock that polls exploring why young Americans are wary of becoming parents are crowded with concerns about whether they have enough time or money to pull it off? Is it any surprise that few young families can afford quality child care, let alone having parents or caregivers stay home with their children?
For decades, families have faced policies designed to push working parents of young children into the workforce. Federal policies have made public child care funding contingent upon whether low-income families are working or training to work. Many efforts to expand access to universal pre-K have advanced based on its potential to increase parental employment rates. Policies that provide tax benefits for families with children have long tilted toward those making enough income to pay taxes. These ideas largely focus on making parents more reliable and effective employees.
Instead, we exhausted parents need proposals that allow us to spend less time and energy working—particularly in the early years of their children’s lives. This starts with paid family leave. It should also include redistributive policies aimed at raising families’ incomes while their children are young. Research suggests that resource boosts from these child allowances can significantly improve children’s development and long-term outcomes, in part by giving their families some material cushion. In Canada, for instance, families receive monthly checks indexed to their household incomes and number of children.
It’s difficult to achieve any of these things when the countries’ wealthiest people and biggest companies are paying less in taxes while raking in more and more money. And corporate concentration undermines the health of families and communities in whole regions of the United States. To take just one example: housing is ruinously unaffordable near hot labor markets partly because of how policies consolidated much of the country’s economic growth and opportunity in just a handful of places.
In other words, to address working families’ daily challenges, we need to connect them to the broader backdrop of inequality and social immobility in the United States.
For years, I’ve talked wistfully about my three years as our family’s primary caregiver—the best years of my life, when I realized that fatherhood is the only role for which I have any real talent. Yet now I groan when dinner moves me off the job and back to child care, since I almost always have an evening of work ahead. That’s no way to live; the more that work shapes families’ lives, the harder it is for working parents to do the joyful, important job of raising their kids. A nation of exhausted families deserves better.
Conor P. Williams (@ConorPWilliams) is a fellow at the Century Foundation.