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Congress’s Family-First Reality Check
Published on Friday, December 29, 2006 by the Providence Journal (Rhode Island)
Congress’s Family-First Reality Check
by Jared Bernstein and Jodie Levin-Epstein

Pretty much everyone who stumbled on the story had the same reaction: “Can you believe these guys?”

We’re talking about the collective sigh of frustration heaved by working families across the nation when certain members of Congress started whining about their new five-day work week, up from three last year.

The allegedly crushing schedule comes from the new Democratic leaders, who argue that they need the extra days to craft and move their agenda. One member went so far as to accuse Democrats of being anti-family for keeping members in the Capitol, far from their homes.

Predictably, this embarrassing bout of cluelessness lasted for about half of a news cycle, but there’s a real issue embedded in it: the challenge of balancing work and family.

Most parents work outside the home, even when the kids are very young. In 65 percent of families with children under 18, all available parents are working; for families with kids under six, it’s 58 percent. Half of all mothers and 88 percent of fathers are employed full-time. Even among mothers with children under age 6, employment is common: 42 percent work full-time; another 17 percent work part-time.

Not only are more parents working, they’re working more hours. Middle-income, married-couple families with children are spending over 500 more hours per year at work now than they were a generation ago, with almost all of the increase coming from wives.

Has Congress heretofore been insulated from this trend by their cushy work schedule? Maybe, but more likely, many members experience these stressors in spades. Especially with their commutes from districts far from D.C., chances are they feel our pain on this one pretty acutely.

Which raises the question: Why have lawmakers been so loathe to embrace helpful legislation in this area? The question is especially germane when one considers that one of President Clinton’s most popular initiatives was the Family Medical Leave Act, a useful but limited family-friendly policy (the Act allows leave without job loss, but only for a birth/adoption or serious illness, small firms are excluded, and it’s unpaid).

It’s not for the lack of good ideas, many of which are being practiced elsewhere. The U.S. joins only Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland in failing to provide paid maternity leave. In nearly every developed nation, the statutory minimum number of paid vacation days starts at 20, which is about what U.S. workers average after 25 years. Another essential ingredient for working parents, especially those with low incomes, would be a reliable, affordable (meaning subsidized), quality childcare system. Without it, problems spiral — jobs get lost or older kids drop out of school to care for younger sibs.

More likely, these ideas have gone nowhere because they are perceived as being anti-business. But in an advanced society where most parents work, this is simply an unsustainably atavistic view. First, there’s the bottom line: A latter 1990s study found that employee absences related to childcare breakdowns cost U.S. businesses an estimated $3 billion. And unsurprisingly, family-friendly policies have been found to increase employee retention, reducing turnover, vacancies, recruitment, and training costs.

You might well ask, “If these are such great ideas for businesses, why haven’t more firms implemented them — why should the government get involved?” The answer is that American businesses can obviously be profitable while ignoring the growing stressors that work is placing on families. The point of the work/family movement is that they can also be profitable by taking the high road, but too few firms will follow that route on their own.

Policy makers need to point the way. And as long as they’re going to be spending a few more days in the office, they’ve got a great incentive to get started.

Jared Bernstein is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and author of All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy.
Jodie Levin-Epstein is the deputy director of the Center for Law and Social Policy.

© 2006, Published by The Providence Journal Co.


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