Viewpoint: Will Family Issues Finally Get Addressed?

We are still the only developed nation without paid maternal or paternal leave, and our lack of a childcare system is a scandal

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Angela Rowlings / Boston Herald / Polaris

Supporters of Elizabeth Warren cheer for her outside the Graham & Parks School in Cambridge, Mass., on Nov. 6, 2012

Women did a great deal for Democrats in this election. Their support cemented President Obama’s return to the White House, and their disgust with Republican extremism maintained and strengthened the party’s Senate majority.

(MORE: 4 Ways Women Won the Election)

Now it’s time for the party to return the favor. Having successfully held the line on reproductive rights, staking out a strong position of support for women’s dignity and sexual self-determination, Democratic leaders now need to go further and start a new campaign to complete the most serious unfinished business of the modern women’s movement: bringing our institutions in line with the changed realities of contemporary family life.

Fewer than one-fourth of American families with children under age 15 now have a wage-earning dad and a stay-at-home mom. Yet most of our workplaces are still structured as though every employee had a wife at home to perform the full-time job of homemaking and caregiving. Our schools are open for ridiculously few hours each week and for a grossly inadequate number of days each year. High-quality, accessible and affordable care for young children is out of reach for all but the luckiest, and wealthiest, families. And after four decades of women’s steady progress into the workforce, virtually nothing has been done politically to address this situation, which imposes damaging  levels of stress on parents and children alike, at all levels of the income scale.

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Knowing all this, in 2008 candidate Obama (indeed, all the Democratic presidential candidates) ran for office with a well thought-out and specifically spelled-out platform of family-friendly policies. This year, despite the Democrats’ assiduous courting of women and the family-friendly language in the Democratic platform, such policies were all but absent from the political discussion. It would seem that our devastated economy — and our devastatingly fractious political environment — has made it impossible, even laughable to talk about new programs or initiatives that could cost serious money (in the case of early childhood education, for example) or might suppress job growth (as the business lobby has erroneously argued whenever talk of new family-friendly legislation is on the table).

But what the Great Recession has driven home so dramatically is that tough economic times are precisely when a lack of paid family and medical leave or paid sick days or access to decent child care can become disastrous. At times like these, staying home to take care of a sick relative can push a family dependent on each day’s wages — and a mother’s wages in particular — over the cliff. This difficult period has made action on the most basic package of family-friendly policies more urgent than ever.

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Republican obstructionism in the House, and the public’s antigovernment, antispending spirit generally, will guarantee that we won’t be seeing any massive social reforms of this type anytime soon. And yet, right away, there is a great deal of meaningful work that the Obama Administration and its allies on Capitol Hill and in the states can do to seed the terrain for change. The most enduringly destructive force keeping American workplaces stuck in the early 1960s has been the myth that issues like child care, elder care and work-life balance are private issues, dilemmas that stem from the individual choices or priorities of individual women — a necessary by-product, essentially, of the much vaunted freedom that American women have been fortunate enough to win in recent decades.

The Democrats, in an effort that stretches back well beyond this past election cycle, have successfully pushed back against precisely those sorts of fatalistic, American-exceptionalist messages in other areas they’ve deemed political priorities. They successfully made the case that wealth inequality is a result of decades of Republican policies and not just the way things have to be in our free-market society. They made thinning the ranks of our uninsured an issue of moral necessity — and showed how it could be done. Now the sort of well orchestrated outrage that brought an end to health insurance companies’ refusing coverage to people with pre-existing conditions should be applied to the fact that we are alone in the advanced, industrialized world in not offering paid leave to parents after the birth of a child (Australia, for long the other member of this exclusive club, started offering paid leave to new mothers and fathers in 2011) as well as to the fact that nearly 40% of our private-sector workers don’t have the right to paid sick days. Our lack of a system of decent care for young children needs to be talked about as the embarrassing scandal that it is, not as an outgrowth of the “privilege” of having it all.

(MORE: Why We Have to Stop Talking About ‘Having It All’)

The non-care of our children, the cruel burden of responsibility that now rests on the shoulders of individual mothers (and fathers, for that matter) is every bit as urgent and moral an issue as reproductive rights. And it is an absolutely central issue to the flourishing of our economy. Candidate Obama knew this in 2008. It’s time to reconnect with that specific message of hope and change once again.