Piecemeal Labor Reform is Nice, But National Action is What's Needed

Nowadays, the American Dream rarely comes true. (Photo: Steven Senne/AP)

Piecemeal Labor Reform is Nice, But National Action is What's Needed

We should celebrate higher minimum wages and paid leave passing in California and New York. They’re what every US worker deserves

In 1931, banker-turned-writer James Truslow Adams argued with his publishers about the title of a book he'd just completed. Adams wanted to call the book The American Dream, but his publishers believed no American in the Great Depression would shell out $3 for a book by that name.

The publishers won. The book was called The Epic of America, but Truslow had the last word. He included the phrase "the American dream" in the text some 30 times, and gave a name to the belief that You Can Make It Here, no matter your origins.

We cling to this notion - that Americans have the unique ability to move up the socio-economic ladder - but that dream has become much more of a European one, where residents tend to enjoy more social mobility. Economic success and social fulfillment remain elusive to the vast majority of Americans.

That may be why last week, when state legislators in California and New York passed laws that will lift workers' minimum wage to $15 an hour, and New York legislators approved a startlingly robust 12-week (by 2021) paid family leave that will affect 6.4 million New Yorkers, the stateside press covered it as if it's a revolution.

New York's new leave law - paid for by small payroll deductions - enhances the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which promises to certain employees that their jobs will be waiting for them if they take a leave for the birth, adoption or placement of a foster child, or to care for an ill loved one. New York's new law goes deeper: it covers full- and part-time employees, and small businesses are no longer excluded. And the leave will be paid.

Nationwide, just 12% of American workers have paid family leave through their employer. To be actually revolutionary - to make the US the land of opportunity we like to say we are - we must go much further than New York and California, pushing for paid leave for all, for policies that finally close the gender pay gap and for humane protections for all. Because these state policies are only a start: lower-wage workers and, notably, women remain caught in a system that devalues the work they do.

As a culture, we don't value what has traditionally been called "women's work" - which mostly revolves around caregiving. Yet caregiving is, as this essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter says, the "work that makes work possible". The growing need for childcare and elder care means that caregiving will be the country's largest occupation in four short years.

Recent studies show that when women enter a particular industry, the average pay for that industry drops. One study looked at 50 years of US Census data and found that even when controlling for education and skill, the more women work in a particular industry, the lower the average pay. (Think secretarial work, which was traditionally a man's job, or think working in parks. When women entered that particular market, the pay dropped by 57%. The reverse holds true when men enter an industry traditionally populated by women.)

Then there is the seemingly intractable gender pay gap, where women are paid just 79 cents for every dollar made by a man - and that's just for white people. If you look at the gender pay gap for women of color, the gap is far worse.

What is it about our economic system that we can't factor in women or families? Compare the US family leaves to other countries. The United Kingdom provides 40 weeks. Iran provides 12 weeks. Vietnam provides 26 weeks, though if a mother has more than one child, they may take an extra 30 days for each child. If we are still the land of opportunity, we are that despite our public policies.

As we get ready to mark Equal Pay Day (12 April 2016, the day when women will have worked long enough to have earned the salaries earned by the men the previous year), we still want to believe in the American Dream. It fuels our ingenuity, and our can-do attitude. But if we don't remove some roadblocks, it may forever be enshrined in our hearts, but it will remain far, far from our reality.