The New York Times “Room For Debate”: How About A Family Friendly Economy

Terrance Heath

Late last week, I was invited to be a debater in today’s New York Times “Room for Debate” online discussion. The debate is focused on last week’s news that mothers are now the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households, and the hand-wringing about the role of men and the importance of fathers that followed. I was invited to offer my perspective as a married (to my husband of nearly 13 years) gay dad, and I was happy to do so.

However, the topic — “What Are Fathers For?” — leads me to think we’re having the wrong debate and asking the wrong questions.

A better question might be “What are families for?” I offered an answer in my contribution to the debate, which I also wrote to refute the “children do best with a mother and father” assertion I expected from some of my fellow debaters.

In 30 years, 67 studies have failed to find harm in gay parenting. Instead, study after study finds that our kids — and I say “our” in particular because I am raising two sons with my husband — turn out pretty much the same as anyone else’s. In fact, having invested time and effort in deliberately becoming parents, same-sex couples may work harder at being good parents.

Children do best when they are raised by adults who are loving, compassionate, responsible, dependable and committed to the children’s well-being. Families do best when parents have the support of the community and society at large. Whether a family has one parent or two, and whether those parents are of opposite sexes or the same, doesn’t matter.

Same-sex parents, lacking any tradition of gender-based division of labor, may actually share parenting duties more equitably. Children of gay parents grow up without gendered assumptions about child care and housework. There is no “women’s work,” and there’s no such thing as a “man’s job.” It’s unremarkable for a man to be a “stay-at-home dad” or for a woman to be a “working mom.” Whatever the configuration, these kids see two adults working in an equal partnership.

Of course it’s easier with two parents, but single parents just need more support. All families benefit when we understand that we all have an interest in children being raised in stable, loving families and when society supports those families – regardless of gender, sexual orientation or single-parent status.

The answer to the question, “What are families for?”, seems pretty straightforward to me, and it has nothing to do with gender, sexual orientation, or marital status. The answer, if you accept the premise that we all have an interest in children being raised in loving, stable families of any configuration, should lead to an obvious follow up question: In light of how much family economics have changed, what are we doing to support families now — and what aren’t we doing that we should be doing?

On one hand, as Stephanie Coontz points out, the news about bread-winning moms is a triumph for working women. Coontz cites a resent multi-year study which showed that working has improved women’s overall well-being, as stay-at-home moms reported more sadness, anger, and diagnosed depression than their working counterparts. Not only that, but Coontz notes it can improve marriages. In the 1960s and 1970s, women who went to work raised the risk of divorce. Today, a woman’s employment lowers the risk of divorce, and dual-income, middle-class couples have the highest rates of marital bliss.

That last bit about dual-income couples sheds light on the other side of the coin. Many of those working moms are working out of necessity, at low-wage jobs, with little to no benefits, and no paid time off. Coontz writes that “low-wage jobs with urgent and inflexible time demands,” raise levels of stress and depression among working mothers.

As KJ Dell’Antonia pointed out, what’s wrong with this debate is that it conflates the realties of middle-class families with those of low-income families who are part of the working poor, who were hit the hardest in the recession, and have seen no benefits from the so-called recovery.

Earlier this week, I made a case for an investment agenda for America. Now, a report from The Working Poor Families Project has underscored the urgent need for an economic agenda based on investing in the American people and preparing our workforce not just to compete in the new economy, but to pull us out of crisis and into a recovery from which we may start building a new economy. The report’s title, “Great Recession Hit Hard at America’s Working Poor: Nearly 1 in 3 Working Families in United States are Low-Income,” (pdf) says it all.

… The report details how “the backbone of our economy” is weakening due to neglect, as these working families struggle with a recession in which more than half (55%) of the workforce has “suffered a spell of unemployment, a cut in pay, a reduction in hours or have become involuntary part-time workers” since the recession began in December 2007.” For the working poor – whose numbers grew by nearly a quarter of a million just between 2008 and 2009 – the recession has made tough circumstances even tougher.

  • According to the report, many joined the ranks of the unemployed or dropped out of the workforce, while others saw their incomes drop as businesses cut back due to the recession.
  • The men in these families have faired particularly badly, as many worked in the now shrunken manufacturing, construction, and financial sectors. Meanwhile, the percentage of working women with an unemployed husband doubled from 2.4% to 5.4% between 2007 and 2009, meaning that in a growing number of working families women (who earn less, on average, than men) are now the primary breadwinners.
  • In an economy where finding a good job with decent wages and benefits requires a college degree (by 2018, 63% of all job openings will require some level of secondary education), nearly a third of working families had at least one parent without a high school diploma. In more than half (52%), neither parent had a high school diploma.

Needless to say, all of the above goes double for racial and ethnic minorities.

(And, in case you’re wondering, gay parents aren’t spared in this economy. A recent report on poverty in the LGBT community has exploded the myth of wide spread gay wealth. The report, by the Williams Institute shows that that gays are more likely live in poverty. Lesbians are more likely than gay men to live in poverty. Black gay men are more likely than white gay men to live in poverty. And gay parents — especially black couples — are particularly vulnerable to poverty. And it just gets worse as we get older.)

The news about working moms should lead us to ask what needs to be done about America’s family-unfriendly economy.

In his speech celebrating his strong finish in Iowa, Santorum turned to another rhetorical favorite among conservatives: blaming the economic crisis on the “breakdown of the family.”

… The problem is, Santorum has it backwards. It’s not the “break-down of the family” that caused the economic crisis. It’s the economic crisis – caused by a financial sector and the conservatism that allowed it – that’s leading to the break-down of millions of American families. When the economy breaks down, American families struggle. Not vice versa.

Back in 2008, CAF published a report, “The Stress Test: A State-by-State Assessment of America’s Economic Health and a Prescription for Change,” that showed “trouble across the board” – flat wages, rising costs, unemployment, and more people living without health insurance – contributing to a general level of stress in “this historically optimistic country.”

In four years, that stress has worsened, due to a family un-friendly economy in which one in eight families has at least one unemployed person – the highest proportion since the Department of Labor started keeping track. (A year ago, one in nine families had at least one unemployed person.) Those who do find jobs face big pay cuts, as most of the job growth is at the low end of the pay scale. Those who are lucky enough to have jobs are working harder and getting paid less.

According to the Social Security Data, half of Americans make near poverty wages. Many of those who haven’t been knocked out of the middle class by unemployment, are living just this side of poverty. They’ve become the working poor, whose numbers grew by nearly a quarter of a million between 2008 and 2009.

Instead, the latest news about working women and their families led to another round of discussion about the perilous state of (you guessed it) men. And we’re not just talking about the very real loss of jobs in areas like manufacturing, but the men’s symbolic loss of cultural primacy.

When the news broke and last week, I was bemused by the controversy that ensued, and amused to see female conservative pundits like Greta van Susteren and Megyn Kelly tear into the their male colleagues, following some unbelievably stupid statements from guys like Lou Dobbs and Eric Erickson. But most of all, I’m disappointed that we’ve missed another opportunity to how to build an economy that works for working families. Disappointed, but not surprised.

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