Why have family-friendly work policies fallen off the national agenda?

Over the weekend, The New York Times published a terrific op-ed by historian Stephanie Coontz about a vexing subject: why the feminist project of gender equality seems to be badly stalled. It’s an excellent piece, rich in data and well-argued. Coontz makes many important points in the essay, and I strongly urge that you read the whole thing. I’m going to focus on one of the most important points she makes: that America’s miserably inadequate work-family policies are an important reason why gender inequalities continue to loom large.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but when it comes to friendly-family work policy, the United States is horrible. We’re one of the richest countries on the planet, and yet, compared to every other industrialized country, we come in dead last where work and family policies are concerned. As Coontz notes:

180 [countries] now offer guaranteed paid leave to new mothers, and 81 offer paid leave to fathers. They found that 175 mandate paid annual leave for workers, and 162 limit the maximum length of the workweek. The United States offers none of these protections (emphasis mine).

It’s been a full 20 years since the passage of the Clinton-era Family and Medical Leave Act, which offers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to qualified employees. Yet since then, there has been nothing, at least not at the federal level. A few states (California, Connecticut, and New Jersey) and cities (San Francisco and Washington, DC) have passed modest paid leave programs, but we haven’t heard anything from President Obama or any other national political figure on this issue. (President Obama’s call for early childhood education in the State of the Union address was extremely welcome, but those programs are primarily for the kids — though parents will also benefit).

I understand that a big, expensive child care program — or even a modest expansion of the child care system we have — would be tough to get through the current, Republican-dominated Congress. But a paid family leave policy need not be terribly expensive. The one in California, for example, is paid for by minuscule increase in the payroll tax, and funded through the state’s temporary disability program.

Moreover, work/family programs like paid family leave tend to poll extremely well. According to new research by political scientist Kimberly Morgan, recently, when political parties in Europe, even the right-of-center ones, adopted family-friendly policies, they won support at the polls, especially among groups of previously disaffected voters.

According to Ellen Bravo, over 40 million Americans lack even a single paid sick day, and that is a national scandal. Democrats would have much to gain by calling for national policies that promote work-family balance. Even if it’s impossible to get anything decent passed in a Republican Congress, the Dems could shame the Republicans by forcing them to take unpopular votes, or by drawing attention to their opponents’ opposition to these policies during political campaigns.

It’s long past time for America to catch up for the rest of the world, and for the Democrats to put these issues back on the national agenda. What have they got to lose?

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee