Framing the Debate on Work-Life Conflict

Family Friendly Workplace Policies Mean Strong Family Values

A CAP panel discusses how progressives and conservatives can work together to support more family-friendly workplace policies.

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“At every one of those kitchen tables, whether it’s the professionals, the poor, or the working class, those families are having the same conversations,” said Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations and the keynote speaker at CAP’s panel discussion Tuesday on work-family conflict.

The panel, entitled, “The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict: How the Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle Cope with Work-Life Balance,” focused on ways progressives can reframe debate on labor and workplace policy. Judith Warner, New York Times contributor and best-selling author; the Rev. Jennifer Butler, the executive director of Faith in Public Life; and Joan Williams, law professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law and an expert on work-family issues joined Holt Baker on the panel. CAP senior economist Heather Boushey moderated.

Boushey and Williams are the authors of a CAP report on work-family conflict, “The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict.” The report focuses on how work-family conflict differs for families across the income spectrum and how we can construct a cross-class alliance to address the challenges families face. “We can construct an effective cross-class politics around these issues,” suggested Boushey in her opening remarks. New policies, panelists agreed, should focus on helping the middle and professional classes as well as on the poor.

“A program for the poor is a poor program,” said Williams, but not for policy reasons. She said the problem with such programs is with “the politics it creates, which feed into class consciousness and right into the Republicans’ political agenda.”

Warner agreed. Programs that allocate government funds toward helping the middle class, she said, have been “taboo” for some time, because people feel “you must be about to neglect the poor.” But, she added, “The need for help is much more widespread than we like to admit.”

The poll Boushey and Williams cite (released separately) illustrates agreement among conservatives and progressives on the need for more “family-friendly” policies. Sixty-four percent of conservatives and 74 percent of evangelical Christians agree that employers should be required to provide paid family and medical leave for workers, according to the poll.

Rev. Butler said she wasn’t surprised by the poll numbers, saying that progressives have an opportunity to challenge the narrow definition of family values as conservative social values.

“‘Caregiving is a family value’ is not a partisan issue,” added Williams.

She suggested that in order to reach conservatives on issues of workplace policy, progressives can reframe their arguments in terms of values they share with conservatives.

Like conservatives, “our goal is to support personal responsibility,” she emphasized. Workers, she argued, are trying to take responsibility for their families, for caring for children and for their parents. But the current system, in which workers who take days off to take care of family members often lose pay or lose their jobs, undercuts their efforts.

Warner also had advice for progressives on framing the work-family conflict debate. She argued it was necessary to shift the discussion away from women and toward children, because of longstanding and enduring hostility toward women and feminism, and because many younger women do not see themselves as feminists. “A feminist reframing of the argument won’t fly,” she said. But she was hopeful that progressives and feminists could convey their message by focusing on the negative consequences for children from the pressures working families face.

“These are political issues, not just personal issues,” she said.

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