While Congressional Democrats wrestle over their economic package, the expanded child tax credit is far from secure. The tax credit, which reduces child poverty by over 40%, may be tossed in favor of other priorities. But, as a sociologist who focuses primarily on working- and middle-class families, I would encourage Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle to hold firm on it. Economic and workplace policies have the power to strengthen families, a goal we all share.
Despite its devastation, COVID-19 gave many Americans the opportunity to see firsthand what social scientists have known for years—the idea of work-family balance was always an untenable one. Despite a number of open job postings, this May 2021 study by the Federal Reserve shows that a decent chunk of parents — 22% — said they could not return to work or are working less due to lack of childcare and school closures. We can shore up families by changing the nature of work through policies that will benefit all workers, regardless of who is in their households. We must seize this momentous opportunity to strengthen families through a living wage and flexible family policies.
One major challenge among the working class is being too poor to marry. In my work with my fellow sociologist and family expert, Sharon Sassler of Cornell University, we examine the lived experiences of working- and middle-class cohabiting couples in America’s heartland. Long gone are many of the union-scale jobs in the trades where a living wage could be had by most. They were replaced by low-paying jobs in fields like telemarketing and retail work. Over and over we heard from our interviewees that marrying, especially for families with children, would disqualify them from or severely reduce essential benefits like health care or student aid that barely kept their families afloat. Living wages would provide enough income so that supplemental benefits are not needed for survival, and would help those who wish to tie the knot do so. (It would also help those who wish to leave a dangerous or disruptive relationship more easily separate.)
An additional lesson from the pandemic is that the structure of work — and persistent gender roles — are often too rigid to “have it all,” especially for mothers. Despite women entering the workforce in droves, men still have not fully taken on an equitable share at home, a major cause of dissatisfaction among our participants. This discrepancy was immediately elucidated, even for the professional class, when stay-at-home orders and mass unemployment took effect.
Indeed, a sociological expert on childcare, Dan Carlson, found that more time at home led to greater gender equality among heterosexual couples in terms of both housework and childrearing. Post-pandemic, flexible workplace and universal maternity and paternity leave policies will help young families achieve the egalitarian unions they desire—and when lived reality aligns with expectations, couples are more satisfied and more likely to stay together.
Certainly, some would argue that it is not the responsibility of the workplace to create strong families — that families did just fine on their own in the past. However, the nature of work has changed. In addition to real wages not budging since the early 1970s, which means that many more working- and middle-class families rely on two incomes, today’s careers often require expensive, time-consuming credentials. In addition, fewer workers receive health care and retirement benefits through their employers. Finally, we not only work more hours per week, but nearly four additional weeks per year than we did a generation ago. In short, although work has changed, it has not done so in ways that benefit most workers and their families.
As a national book award winner in the field of family sociology, I know that thriving families benefit children, positively impact health, and even support economic growth. An unexpected benefit of the pandemic has shown just how much we rely on our families, with many of us even experiencing greater satisfaction in our personal lives due to workplace disruptions.
For employers, the situation is clear: If you want to be fully staffed, you have to reward your “essential” workers, even if it means disappointing your shareholders. And for politicians, supporting policies like a living wage and universal family leave in the workplace will have even greater effects in your constituents’ homes. If we collectively squander this opportunity to fortify American families, we may not get it back again.
About the Author:
Amanda Miller is a Professor of Sociology and Director of Faculty Development at the University of Indianapolis. Her book (with co-author Sharon Sassler), Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships, won the 2018 William J Good Book Award for Family Sociology. Currently, she is working on a long-term follow-up of working and middle-class cohabiting couples. She is a Public Voices Fellow through the OpEd Project.