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Policy Matters

A Response to Can Working Families Ever Win?

Frances Fox Piven

8 I endorse Jody Heymann's program. I especially appreciate her concern with the caretaking work on which family well-being depends. It is a concern not much heard on the Left, with the consequence that popular anxieties about stressed families have largely been captured by right-wing moralists who attribute family troubles to the immoral conduct of those afflicted.

Still, I think something is missing from Heymann's chronicle of how these troubles developed and, relatedly, from her agenda for reform. The problems of American families are not just the result of our failure as a nation to adapt to a changing economy and its changing workforce requirements. It is true of course that employment has shifted from agriculture to industry, and from home-based work for women to paid labor. But this has occurred virtually everywhere in the world, including the European countries that Heymann points to as exemplars of the family and child-oriented policies she favors.

What is different in the United States is not simply that it is laggard in developing public supports of family caretaking functions. Beyond that, the United States has pioneered policies in the workplace and in public policy that erode the caretaking capacities of families. The past few decades have witnessed an extraordinary intensification of wage work in America, which is characterized not only by the movement of women into the paid workforce (often a response to declines in men's earnings), but also longer working hours for men and women alike, and the spread of new and insecure forms of employment, including temporary, contingent, or contracted work.

This is a development of historic proportions. The whiggish American expectation that over time, things get better, wages rise, hours get shorter and vacations longer, has been exploded. But it is not simply a consequence of changes in the economy, of the growth of the service sector and the decline of manufacturing, for example, or of intensified international competition. If it were, then workers in all rich countries would confront similar conditions: the five-week vacation would be a thing of the past in Germany, and France would not be experimenting with a shortened work week. Instead, the intensification of wage work has been facilitated in the United States by a series of reversals in established public policies, each of which has been justified as a necessary adaptation to contemporary economic conditions.

Some of these policies affect the ability of American workers to organize collectively. Thus most everyone agrees that labor unions not only secure higher wages, but also that they enable workers to resist forced overtime and irregular work schedules. In the United States, unions are now in retreat, their memberships shrinking to pre-1930s levels. And just as the rise of unions in the 1930s reflected the new government protection of the right to organize embodied in the National Labor Relations Act, so does the decline of unions, and the consequent inability of workers to resist the imposition of new and harsher workplace policies, reflect the long-term gutting of the National Labor Relations Act.

The slashing or erosion of other public programs also contributes to the more demanding conditions of wage work. One of the benefits of the unemployment insurance program introduced in the 1930s was that it reduced the desperation of laid-off workers, making it less likely that they would have to settle for a job with lower pay and worse working conditions. But today the program reaches only 40 percent of the unemployed, and a far smaller percentage of workers who were laid off from low-wage jobs. The evisceration of programs that provide low-cost housing or nutritional supports for low-income families also make the unemployed more desperate and force those who are employed to scramble for more hours of work to compensate for reduced public supports.

The most dramatic change in public policy that contributes to the intensification of work and the erosion of caretaking occurred in welfare policy. Welfare was traditionally understood as a program to make it possible for single mothers to care for their children. Now many of these women have been forced into the low-wage labor market, with scant provision for the double burdens they carry as workers and caregivers. Moreover, "welfare reform" has turned into a great dramaturgical production, celebrating wage work and denigrating the work that these women did as caretakers of their families.

Some erstwhile defenders of welfare have argued that there were in fact compensations, that welfare reform smoothed the way for policies to support low-wage workers, such as the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and presumably for the sorts of programs Heymann recommends. But we should be cautious here. It is a good thing, of course, that the EITC increases the earnings of low wage families. This, however, will be of little comfort to the women who followed the welfare-to-work path only to find themselves unemployed when the labor market slackened. In the battle for family-oriented policies, it is important to remember that work-conditioned social programs—whether tax credits or child-care supports or pensions or health benefits—always increase the power of employers over workers, because they allow employers to threaten not only employment and wages, but an array of other protections. Consider, for instance, the plight of Enron workers who recently lost their pensions as well as their jobs when the firm collapsed.

So, yes. We want policies that support family caretaking, and Heymann's agenda is reasonable. These programs should not be restricted to working families, but should reach all children and adults in need—partly because otherwise the poor who are marginal to the labor force will be excluded, with pernicious effects for them, and ultimately for all of us. We should avoid work-conditioning for another reason, because one of the principles behind public supports is precisely that they can loosen the yoke of employers on workers.

That agreed, a family-oriented social policy agenda should be broader. We should go beyond public programs that supplement specific family care-giving functions to re-evaluate the policies that are eroding the care-giving capacities of families in the first place. It is unlikely that Heymann's ambitious agenda will be enacted any time soon; but even if it is, these programs can only partially compensate for the betrayal of the labor and public policy standards on which adequate care-giving ultimately depends.<


Frances Fox Piven teaches at CUNY Graduate Center and is co-author, with Richard A. Cloward, of Regulating the Poor, Poor Peoples' Movements, and Why Americans Still Don't Vote.

Return to the forum on Caregiving, with Jody Heymann and respondents.


Originally published in the February/March 2002 issue of Boston Review



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