From Congress to the presidential election, politicians are talking about working family issues. Progressives propose paid parental and medical leave, affordable child care and reliable scheduling; conservatives offer business-friendly "workplace flexibility" that progressives criticize as anti-worker.
Both sides say helping working parents will help the economy. Sorting out what's right and how to make the case for policies that actually will help working families has been the latest mission that Heather Boushey, economist, author and expert on family economic well-being, has taken on.
In her just-released book, "Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict," Boushey addresses the consequences of the shift away from the 1960s standard households with one breadwinner and one stay-at-home caregiver. “By 2012 fewer than a third of children lived in a family with a stay-at-home caregiver,” Boushey writes, and this shift has occurred across all income brackets.
Public policy has yet to fully adapt to this change in family dynamics. Plus, when that discussion does happen, Boushey says it usually starts off wrong. Typically, advocates promoting policy proposals to help working families begin with a business argument, thinking that businesses will respond only if they know that paid family leave, paid sick days and affordable child care will help grow profits for their businesses.
This argument does not capture the entire picture. Boushey explains why the argument for family-friendly policies should really be framed in economic terms. “It’s important when we’re thinking about what’s happening in the economy and economic policymaking to take into account not just the firm side of the equation but to look at the whole economy,” Boushey said in an interview with OurFuture.org. With households making up about 70 percent of our GDP, Boushey said, “It’s not that we need to look at just families or firms, we need to look at both sides of the equation.”
Boushey says that businesses are not the only stakeholders involved; the whole economy needs to be taken into consideration as well. Doing what is beneficial for the economy as a whole will translate into positive results for individual businesses. Finally we can
Once the problem is framed as an economic rather than business issue, government action starts to make sense. Confronting the claim that private firms ought to handle these issues on individual terms, Boushey said, “We’ve got these big economic issues that may not be in the interest of any one single firm to address all of them. But it is in their interest to have these issues addressed. And so that’s where there’s a role for policymaking.”
Acting alone, individual firms will not address all the issues of working families. Federal and local legislation can help attack each problem by giving guidelines to firms. Boushey acknowledges that many firms will not be able to cover the costs on their own, but this is yet another reason in favor of government action.
To help working parents manage child rearing, elderly care and the plethora of life’s daily tasks, we need to change the way we frame working family issues. Pivoting away from the business self-interest argument to a broader economic argument forces voters to acknowledge the true need for government action. American households and businesses cannot solve this economic predicament on their own.