The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict

Median income of middle class Americans has fallen 13% since 1979 -- these families are overlooked government policies and academic studies.
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The Poor

Kim Braithwaite was making progress. She was working two jobs to support her two children, 9-year old Justina and 1-year-old Justin. But on October 12, 2003, she faced a dilemma: her babysitter was late. Kim would be tardy for her shift at McDonald's if she delayed and she worried that she would be fired. The sitter would arrive in a few minutes, Kim reasoned, and she left for work. The next she heard was from the police. Her children were found dead in her front room; her apartment had caught fire before the babysitter arrived. Kim was arrested for child neglect. Said a neighbor, "It's hard when a single mother has two or three kids and has to work a lot. But I never hear her kids crying, never see her yelling at them. She is a good mom."

The bottom 30 percent of American families try to get by on a median annual income of $19,000, earning less than $35,000 dollars a year. Their median income has fallen 29 percent since 1979 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). These families get few benefits from their employers to help manage work-life conflict and often hold jobs with inconsistent or unpredictable schedules that exacerbate these conflicts. Government policies to help these families cope with work-life conflicts are too-often inadequate and underfunded, yet conservatives point to the problems these families have in balancing work and family as proof of their "irresponsibility."

The Professionals

Sally Sears was a high-profile TV news anchor, a job she loved and continued for nine years after her son's birth. But then "[m]y five-day 50-hour week was becoming a 60-hour week." She felt she was missing her son's childhood, so she asked to reduce her hours to something more like traditional full time. Her employer said it was all or nothing. Very reluctantly, she quit. Ironically, the same all-or-nothing employer soon hired report part time. But now she had no job security, no pension, no health insurance, and no chance for advancement. "It kills me that I'm not contributing to my 401(k) anymore," she told a reporter.

The highest income families typically hold professional or managerial jobs. They have a median annual income of $148,000, earning above $101,000 a year, with one-in-five earning above $210,000 and one-in-ten earning above $320,000. Their median income has increased 7 percent since 1979 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Employers are most likely to offer paid leave and workplace flexibility to these workers, yet require long hours that make achieving a workable balance impossible for many. Conservatives and progressives alike fall for the false notion that women in these families who "opt out" of the workforce are voluntarily doing so for the sake of their kids.

The Missing Middle

"Mike drives a cab and I work in a hospital, so we figured one of us could transfer to nights. We talked it over and decided it would be best if I was here during the day and he was here at night. He controls the kids, especially my son, better than I do. So now Mike works days and I work graveyard. I hate it, but it's the only answer; at least this way somebody's here all the time. I get home at 8:30 in the morning. The kids and Mike are gone. I clean up the house a little, do the shopping and the laundry and whatever, then I go to sleep for a couple of hours before the kids come home from school. Mike gets home at five, we eat, then he takes over for the night, and I go back to sleep for a couple of hours. I try to get up by 9:00 so we can have a little time together, but I'm so tired that I don't make it a lot of times. And by 10:00, he's sleeping because he has to be up by 6 in the morning. It's hard, very hard. There's no time to live or anything."

Americans who are neither rich nor poor have a median annual income of $64,000, earning between $35,000 and about $110,000 a year. Their median income has fallen 13 percent since 1979 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). These families are overlooked to often by government policies and academic studies. This report is designed to ensure policymakers understand the day-to-day challenges faced by this "missing" 50 percent of American workers, and the political benefits to be gained by attending to them, alongside the poor and the professionals.

These are the three faces of work-family conflict in our country today. These are the families that need comprehensive work-family government policies that give them all the opportunity to achieve the American dream.

Thus begins The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict: The Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle, a report jointly issued by the Center for WorkLife Law and the Center for American Progress, last week, and co-written by myself and Heather Boushey.

The report highlights the different ways work-family conflict shows up in American families' lives. To Ruth Marcus, in an op-ed in the Washington Post,, the report brought home the point that her babysitter has even worse work-family conflict than she does.

Another important message concerns the missing middle. These families struggle with rigid, highly supervised jobs that often leave them one sick child away from being fired. Typically they handle child care by tag teaming, with parents working different shifts -- a schedule that can leave them exhausted. "My daughter always wants to do things with me, but I'm too exhausted," explained Blanche Grosswald, a San Francisco bus driver and the mother of a teenager, to Blanche Grosswald, then a graduate student at Berkeley and now a professor at Rutgers.

"When I'd come home from work, I didn't feel like being bothered," said another working mother. "You come home totally drained. At first [when I got this job] my kids, they were excited. But then they avoided me. Because I would snap at them, holler." Tag teaming is also hard on couples who may well rarely see each other awake. Tag-team families have three to six times the national divorce rate.

Families in the middle, meanwhile, see poor families getting child care subsidies that are not available to them. These subsidies are paltry and sporadic -- but that's something a policy analyst would know, not the guy who comes to fix your TIVO or the lady who sells mattresses. The missing middle also sees that poor families are much more likely to have mothers who stay home full time. Meanwhile, middle-income mothers stay up till 11 ironing, then get up at 5:00 to make breakfast and lunches and rush the kids to school and day care before their shifts start, knowing all the while that they can be fired for being a few minutes late. Again, what they do not know but a policy analyst would is that poor mothers don't work when their wages are so low they lose money if they do work, or when they get fired over and over again due to rotating shifts or patched-together child care.

But what the missing middle sees is that the government seems to care about the poor, but not about hardworking families like themselves. This fuels the anger of lunch-pail liberals turned Tea Party conservatives. An underlying message of the Three Faces report is that day to day life is hard for middle-income families, who have lost ground since 1970. Government programs targeted to the poor fuel the kind of class conflict Sarah Palin taps so skillfully. As a result, need-based social programs become politically vulnerable, and politics veers sharply to the right.

Solving this problem will not be easy. But the first step is to see that it exists. Your thoughts?

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