Jody Heymann’s article opens an important discussion about the barriers faced by working parents and the failures of public policies and institutions to provide caregivers with a basic level of support. American efforts to address these issues reveal both the strengths and weaknesses of our society. The prevailing values of self-reliance, privacy, and family—so essential to the early development of the United States—no longer serve the needs of working families. Self-reliance in an era of complex economic environments, demanding workplaces, diminishing public supports, and deteriorating community infrastructure does little to ensure that basic family needs are met. Unlike virtually every other developed country across the globe, issues of child care, elder care, education, and health in the United States are generally perceived to be the province of the individual and the family, and government policy on families is virtually nonexistent.
Recently, corporations have taken the lead in creating a series of innovative programs and policy responses to address the needs of working families. Sometimes referred to as “family-friendly companies,” a number of leading businesses have established a wide array of very powerful and popular supports for families ranging from on-site child care to concierge services—policies that may give families more time to take care of needs like early-childhood education, not to mention dry cleaning and car maintenance. While these benefits have been quite successful in addressing the needs of beneficiaries, their limits again reflect our national values and biases. Only the very small percentage of working parents who happen to be employed by these (generally large and prosperous) corporations have access to these supports.
And there lies the rub. By placing responsibility for such basic needs as child care and looking after our elders exclusively on the individual and family, we have created a system that relies on the good fortunes of individual families, or the good fortunes of those who work for family-friendly companies. In today’s world of highly mobile families where most adults work and indeed have to work to meet basic needs, traditional methods of mutual aid by families and communities are less viable. So who should take responsibility for the care of dependents and guarantee that our families and communities are, at a basic level, healthy and sustainable?
What we have now is a clouded vision and fragmented policies for addressing the needs of working families. We cannot imagine a society (like those of Europe) where government and employers work collaboratively to ensure the most basic supports and design policies conducive to healthy and sustainable family life. In America, corporate policy and public policy generally work at cross-purposes, with free marketers fending off regulation and legislative mandates. Caught in-between are working families, who at the end of the day are still running as fast as they can to assemble a patchwork of informal and formal supports, unable to rely to any great extent on the public or private sector to help them meet their basic family needs.
What, then, would a family-friendly community look like? Might there not be mechanisms whereby multiple stakeholders in the community such as schools, churches, local governments, civic associations, and business all come together to create a place where families and children could thrive? Is it really too utopian to imagine such a place, especially since it is ultimately in the interests of all, for such collaboration to occur? Business depends on healthy families and communities in order to sustain productivity, investment, and growth. One need only look to the growing involvement of business in public education to see how effective and popular such collaboration could be.
As frustration with current policies and stress levels for working families rise, such creative action is becoming more crucial. Despite the past decade of family-friendly programs, reported stress on families and individuals continues to increase, working hours are on the rise, and the corporate treadmill seems to be moving faster than ever.
We need an innovative vision for our families and our workplaces: a new vision of work and family, and new roles for both the public and private sector. In the private sector, family needs have been conceptually and practically lodged within a human resources framework, defined and operationalized as an individual benefit, much like health care coverage or a pension. A more sustainable strategy might be to link its supports for working families to the new model of corporate citizenship. In partnerships with community institutions and local and state governments, businesses could capitalize on the strengths of public, private and community sectors, and force each to understand and value the assets and contributions of the others.
In the public sector, it is time to develop a concept of the family-friendly community that parallels that of the family-friendly company. Currently, the private sector has exercised the primary leadership in developing supports for families, inventions mothered by the necessity of meeting the bottom line. The time has come for the public sector to share the mantle of leadership on family issues by placing the needs of working families at the top of the national priorities. Private solutions alone will not sustain the needs of working families.