Gracy Olmstead writes:
This struggle is the focus of two recently published books: Alissa Quart’s Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, which came out in 2018, and Eichner’s The Free-Market Family: How the Market Crushed the American Dream (and How It Can Be Restored), published in January of this year. Both books painstakingly document the plight of U.S. mothers and fathers from many economic backgrounds, career fields, and geographic regions. The picture they paint is bleak, and often maddening: as Eichner puts it, “A range of harsh market forces are undercutting American families today. … Markets, rather than supporting sound family lives, are strangling the life out of them.”
Fixing what’s broken, both authors argue, will require far more than a few tweaks to the tax code. It will demand a complete reevaluation of our economic system and governmental safety net. It will require us to consider who our economy is actually meant to serve—and whether conservatives, in particular, are willing to back their pro-life, pro-family rhetoric with actual economic policy. We have to start asking ourselves what we believe the telos, or “chief end,” of our economy is meant to be.
Both American parents and children have alarmingly high rates of depression and anxiety. Deaths of despair and the opioid crisis are both often tied to familial and economic instability. Two-earner parent households in the U.S. work longer hours than their peers in any other developed country, Eichner reports, with a total paid and unpaid workload of about 135 hours a week or more. Zero percent of mothers and just five percent of fathers say they have time to spare.
Yet despite all this work, a large share of American parents still struggle to put food on the table, to afford safe daycare for their young children, to pay their bills, and to stay on top of debt. They are, as Quart puts it, “running furiously and breathlessly just to find themselves staying in place.”
Why is this true of so many Americans? Both Quart and Eichner assemble a long list. Many U.S. jobs are less stable and permanent than in the past, with highly unpredictable work hours and stagnant wages. The job market itself is uncertain, and any semblance of work-life balance has become increasingly difficult. Yet “middle-class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was twenty years ago,” Quart notes. The costs of education, health care, day care, housing have all “exploded” in recent decades, and Quart cites a Washington Post/Miller Center poll which found that 65 percent of all Americans worry about paying their bills….
We have centered the norms of the workforce around the assumption that most workers are untethered and autonomous—and employers and politicians often get irked and annoyed when they realize that most workers, in fact, are neither of these things. Dealing with parents-as-workers requires us to deal with embodied humans: humans who age, who have babies, who need a place to breast pump, or who require more than a week of unpaid maternity leave in order to heal from the strain of childbirth….
Through our policies and cultural expectations, we purposefully separate the poorest mothers from their children, and often pressure them to put their children in high-risk environments. All out of our own utilitarian designation of human worth, tied to work productivity rather than the intrinsic dignity and the imago Dei inherent in every human life….
Beyond the perils of our consumer culture, there are evils in our corporate culture here which the government is not solely responsible for fighting (not because it cannot or should not, but because we as consumers could also be holding U.S. companies to account). Quart argues in her book for a universal child allowance, better-subsidized daycare, universal public pre-K, and even a universal basic income in order to better address familial instability and anxiety. But she also acknowledges that such massive changes could be hard to achieve. And so she argues that we ought to begin exerting moral pressure on companies as soon as possible, through—as one example—“ratings of ‘corporate culture compliance’” that would applaud the best companies and “shame the worst” in regards to their treatment of employees.
You can read the full article here.