While Congress Democrats debate their economic plan, the expanded child tax credit is far from sure. The tax credit, which reduces child poverty more than 40%, may be rejected in favor of other priorities. But, as a sociologist who focuses primarily on working and middle class families, I would encourage congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle to stand firm. Economic and workplace policies have the power to strengthen families, a goal we all share.
Despite its devastation, COVID-19 has given many Americans the opportunity to see for themselves what sociologists have known for years: The idea of work-family balance has always been untenable. Despite a number of job offers, this study of May 2021 by the Federal Reserve shows that a good chunk of parents – 22% – said they couldn’t return to work or worked less because of a lack of daycares and school closings. We can support families by changing the nature of work through policies that will benefit all workers, no matter who is in their home. We must seize this momentous opportunity to strengthen families through living wages and flexible family policies.
A major challenge among the working class is to be too poor to marry. In my work with my sociologist and family specialist, Sharon Sassler of Cornell University, we examine the lived experiences of working-class and middle-class cohabiting couples in the heart of America. Long gone are many union-wide jobs in trades where most could earn a living wage. They were replaced by low-paying jobs in fields like telemarketing and retail. Time and time again our interviewees told us that marriage, especially for families with children, would disqualify them or significantly reduce essential benefits such as health care or student aid that barely kept their families afloat. . Living wage would provide sufficient income so that additional benefits are not necessary for survival, and would help those who wish to marry to do so. (It would also help those who wish to leave a dangerous or disruptive relationship more easily.)
An additional lesson from the pandemic is that the structure of work – and persistent gender roles – are often too rigid to ‘have it all’, especially for mothers. Despite the massive entry of women into the labor market, men still have not fully assumed a fair share at home, a major cause of dissatisfaction among our participants. This gap was immediately cleared up, even for the professional class, when stay-at-home orders and mass unemployment came into effect.
Indeed, a sociologist expert in childcare, Dan Carlson, found that more time spent at home resulted in greater gender equality among heterosexual couples in terms of housework and child rearing. Flexible post-pandemic and universal maternity workstation and paternity leave policies will help young families reach the the egalitarian unions they want– and when lived reality aligns with expectations, couples are more satisfied and more likely to stay together.
Certainly some would argue that it is not the responsibility of the workplace to create strong families – that families have done very well on their own in the past. However, the nature of the work has changed. In addition to real wages hasn’t moved since the early 1970s, which means that many more working-class and middle-class families depend on two incomes, today’s careers often require expensive and time-consuming credentials. In addition, fewer workers receive health care and retirement benefits through their employers. Finally, not only do we work more hours per week, but almost four additional weeks per year than a generation ago. In short, while work has changed, it has not done so in a way that benefits most workers and their families.
As a winner of a national book award in the field of family sociology, I know that successful families benefit children, positively impact health, and even support economic growth. An unexpected benefit from the pandemic has shown how much we rely on our families, and many of us even know greater satisfaction in our personal lives due to disruption in the workplace.
For employers, the situation is clear: if you want to be complete, you must reward your “essential” workers, even if it means disappointing your shareholders. And for politicians, supporting policies like a living wage and universal family leave in the workplace will have even bigger effects in the homes of your constituents. If we collectively squander this opportunity to strengthen American families, we may not get it back.
About the Author:
Amanda Miller is Professor of Sociology and Director of Faculty Development at the University of Indianapolis. Her book (with co-author Sharon Sassler), Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships, won the 2018 William J Good Book Award for Family Sociology. Currently, she is working on a long-term follow-up of active and bourgeois cohabiting couples. She is a member of Public Voices as part of the OpEd project.