Socioeconomic inequalities have grown to an alarming extent in the United States over the past generation. The gap is especially sharp between privileged families headed by two higher-educated, fully employed professionals, and all other families. For Americans without advanced degrees or inherited wealth, the new reality is stark: Even if men and women manage to marry and stay together, wages and benefits once earned by one breadwinner-provider now must be earned by two parents holding down two or three jobs. Time to care for children and other family members often gets squeezed out.
Several factors have converged to propel inequality—including premium wages for people with advanced education or technical skills, intensified economic competition in an era of globalization, and the drastic decline of blue-collar unions. But the failure of U.S. social provision is also a prime culprit. High earners enjoy tax-subsidized employee benefits, and they can fill any gaps by purchasing quality child care, elder care, and enhanced pensions or health services on the private market. But Americans who earn modest or poverty-level wages are stuck. Their employers may not offer pensions or health insurance at all, and few of them can take paid time off to care for sick children or disabled relatives, or to attend school conferences.
To make matters much worse, U.S. public social programs also fail working families of modest means. Medicare and Medicaid do not reach the more than 40 million Americans now without health insurance, most of whom are in low-wage working families. U.S. Family and Medical Leave legislation provides no compensation for lost wages, and does not cover employees of small businesses. And our nation does little to fund high-quality child care, after-school programs, or long-term care for the elderly. Public programs in most advanced industrial democracies find ways to correct for the inequities and failures of the private wage market, but U.S. programs (apart from Social Security) exacerbate market disparities. Inequality thus becomes ever more entrenched, as the children of less privileged parents find themselves ill-prepared to compete for the best jobs of the future.
New public supports for working families could correct this alarming situation, Jody Heymann suggests. She bases her case in part on a principle of equal opportunity, but then also suggests, in rationalist language reminiscent of appeals made by early twentieth-century Progressive reformers, that U.S. economic efficiency would be enhanced by strong family supports: “addressing the needs of working families,” she says, “will strengthen our ability to compete.” She suggests that “[o]ther nations have demonstrated the economic viability of providing basic family benefits,” and such provision will “[o]n balance…make it easier for employers to get their essential work done well.” While emphasizing these economic benefits, Heymann underplays the costs of a new family policy: she asserts that “we can afford the needed changes,” but never indicates what the overall cost might be. She concludes by suggesting that in completing the construction of our very partial system of social provision, “[u]ltimately, all that is required is the depth of commitment borne of the recognition that our nation’s future depends on effective action.”
Much as I admire and agree with Heymann’s policy analysis, I am troubled by the absence of any attention to the cultural-political opposition that her proposals will provoke. Her concluding account of costs and benefits strikes me as politically naïve, for it fails to take into account fierce opposition from conservatives, who proclaim that individuals and families should “take responsibility” for themselves and make their own way in unfettered markets. American social programs are not just out of adjustment with changing family patterns. They are caught in the vortex of a sharp rightward shift in national politics.
From the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, generous and relatively inclusive social programs were enacted and expanded in U.S. democracy. America never built a European-style welfare state focused on wage-earners, but it did spread public education, create extraordinarily generous benefits for the veterans of the Civil War and World War II, enact national and state-level programs to assist mothers and children, and establish the Social Security system, later enhanced by Medicare, to protect elderly retirees. In all of these cases, public programs were devised to benefit middle class as well as less privileged Americans—and the programs were widely understood, not as “welfare” for the poor, but as protections or opportunities open to many Americans who contribute to the nation and deserve public benefits in return. From women’s groups and veterans’ associations to unions and movements of the elderly, massive voluntary associations were involved in agitating for new social legislation, and then teamed up with government to implement social programs. Politically successful social programs were able to sustain broad popular support across class lines, and had access to secure and rising sources of tax revenue.
In my recent work, I analyze the politics that lay behind major U.S. social programs in the past, and show that, from the 1960s onward, possibilities for enacting additional inclusive social programs broke down.1 After the Civil Rights struggles, liberals turned to poverty programs and affirmative action regulations, while conservatives orchestrated popular backlashes against the use of public tax revenues to pay for “welfare” programs targeted only at some very poor people. Working- and middle-class Americans, especially whites, came to resent public expenditures on health care and education programs for which their families were not eligible. A more universal program, Social Security, remained much more popular. But starting in the 1980s, conservatives orchestrated attacks on Social Security, too, trying to persuade younger middle-class Americans that the public system is too expensive to sustain, and that they can get a better deal if their taxes are used to establish individualized market accounts on Wall Street. Heymann takes the continuing existence of Social Security for granted, and wants to build on it. But Social Security itself is now under attack.
In our time, conservative Republicans and Democrats have de-legitimated the very notion of nationally managed social provision, while enacting repeated tax cuts that starve the federal government of the future revenues it will need for Social Security and Medicare—let alone the resources to fund adequate, universal family supports of the sort advocated by Heymann. Even now, as Americans experience a rush of patriotism, national solidarity, and renewed faith in government amidst our new war against international terrorism, conservatives continue to push for tax cuts. At best, trade unionists, liberal Democrats, and other progressives fight rear-guard actions to preserve surviving social programs.
The playing field is tilted, because political parties and voluntary associations no longer reach out to activate and inform masses of ordinary Americans. Monied interests and professionally run advocacy groups dominate the political process. Few alternative voices gain access to the media—which profoundly influences the attitudes of the public, measured in turn by pollsters who tell elected politicians what can and cannot be done. In this situation, it is much easier to sell distrust of government and tax cuts than to build broad majority support for any expensive new social program. Here is the political bind faced by those who want enhanced social provision: In America, public assistance to the poor is politically sustainable only when channeled through broad public programs that also include the middle class. But universal progams are expensive—hard to launch or sustain in a time of dwindling public revenues.
In this new American political context—as the rich not only get richer, but are able to manipulate the public agenda and hobble democratic government in the interests of the majority—Heymann’s reasonable arguments may very well fall on deaf ears. The cycle of ever-exacerbated inequality she portrays will not be interrupted by cost-benefit appeals alone. Instead, working men and women—assembled in popularly rooted institutions such as churches, trade unions, and translocally linked community groups—will have to find a way to forge a new majority movement, calling for family protections for all Americans. Heymann’s vision of security and opportunity for all can help to inform and inspire such a movement. But it will take more than reasonable argument to get there.
1 See Theda Skocpol and Richard C. Leone, The Missing Middle: Working Families and the Future of American Social Policy (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001).