The Care Crisis
As a result, this country's family policies lag far behind those of the rest of the world. A just-released study by researchers at Harvard and McGill found that of 173 countries studied, 168 guarantee paid maternal leave--with the United States joining Lesotho and Swaziland among the laggards. At least 145 countries mandate paid sick days for short- or long-term illnesses--but not the United States. One hundred thirty-four countries legislate a maximum length for the workweek; not us.
The media constantly reinforce the conventional wisdom that the care crisis is an individual problem. Books, magazines and newspapers offer American women an endless stream of advice about how to maintain their "balancing act," how to be better organized and more efficient or how to meditate, exercise and pamper themselves to relieve their mounting stress. Missing is the very pragmatic proposal that American society needs new policies that will restructure the workplace and reorganize family life.
Another slew of stories insist that there simply is no problem: Women have gained equality and passed into a postfeminist era. Such claims are hardly new. Ever since 1970 the mainstream media have been pronouncing the death of feminism and reporting that working women have returned home to care for their children. Now such stories describe, based on scraps of anecdotal data, how elite (predominantly white) women are "choosing" to "opt out," ditching their career opportunities in favor of home and children or to care for aging parents. In 2000 Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, wearily responded to reporters, "I still meet people all the time who believe that the trend has turned, that more women are staying home with their kids, that there are going to be fewer dual-income families. But it's just not true."
Such contentious stories conveniently mask the reality that most women have to work, regardless of their preference. They also obscure the fact that an absence of quality, affordable childcare and flexible working hours, among other family-friendly policies, greatly contributes to women's so-called "choice" to stay at home.
In the past few years, a series of sensational stories have pitted stay-at-home mothers against "working women" in what the media coyly call the "mommy wars." When the New York Times ran a story on the controversy, one woman wrote the editor, "The word 'choice' has been used...as a euphemism for unpaid labor, with no job security, no health or vacation benefits and no retirement plans. No wonder men are not clamoring for this 'choice.' Many jobs in the workplace also involve drudgery, but do not leave one financially dependent on another person."
Most institutions, in fact, have not implemented policies that support family life. As a result, many women do feel compelled to choose between work and family. In Scandinavian countries, where laws provide for generous parental leave and subsidized childcare, women participate in the labor force at far greater rates than here--evidence that "opting out" is, more often than not, the result of a poverty of acceptable options.
American women who do leave their jobs find that they cannot easily re-enter the labor force. The European Union has established that parents who take a leave from work have a right to return to an equivalent job. Not so in the United States. According to a 2005 study by the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change and the Forte Foundation, those who held advanced degrees in law, medicine or education often faced a frosty reception and found themselves shut out of their careers. In her 2005 book Bait and Switch, Barbara Ehrenreich describes how difficult it was for her to find employment as a midlevel manager, despite waving an excellent résumé at potential employers. "The prohibition on [résumé] gaps is pretty great," she says. "You have to be getting an education or making money for somebody all along, every minute."
Some legislation passed by Congress has exacerbated the care crisis rather than ameliorated it. Consider the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which eliminated guaranteed welfare, replaced it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and set a five-year lifetime limit on benefits. Administered by the states, TANF aimed to reduce the number of mothers on welfare rolls, not to reduce poverty.
TANF was supposed to provide self-sufficiency for poor women. But most states forced recipients into unskilled, low-wage jobs, where they joined the working poor. By 2002 one in ten former welfare recipients in seven Midwestern states had become homeless, even though they were now employed.
TANF also disqualified higher education as a work-related activity, which robbed many poor women of an opportunity for upward mobility. Even as the media celebrate highly educated career women who leave their jobs to become stay-at-home moms, TANF requires single mothers to leave their children somewhere, anywhere, so they can fulfill their workfare requirement and receive benefits. TANF issues vouchers that force women to leave their children with dubious childcare providers or baby sitters they have good reasons not to trust.
Some readers may recall the 1970 Women's Strike for Equality, when up to 50,000 women exuberantly marched down New York's Fifth Avenue to issue three core demands for improving their lives: the right to an abortion, equal pay for equal work and universal childcare. The event received so much media attention that it turned the women's movement into a household word.
A generation later, women activists know how far we are from achieving those goals. Abortion is under serious legal attack, and one-third of American women no longer have access to a provider in the county in which they live. Women still make only 77 percent of what men do for the same job; and after they have a child, they suffer from an additional "mother's wage gap," which shows up in fewer promotions, smaller pensions and lower Social Security benefits. Universal childcare isn't even on the agenda of the Democrats.