Flunking The 35 – Year Old Single Mom Test

[Updated below the fold.]

I’ve been working on a piece on how singularly unimpressed I am with the positions staked out by the netroots liberal community as their ‘unshakeable core liberal policy proposals’ as set out by Kevin Drum and Atrios, and how ineffective they really are in meeting my core litmus test on policy – the 35-year old single mom test – (note that the conflict is really about jobs – the policy jobs that will get handed out if the democrats can get back into power) when Captain Ed, in the midst of a series of interesting posts on the on again/off again mobile biolabs / weather balloon trailers stepped up and channeled Dickens’ Alderman Cute:

Ruth Cohen looks at an issue for mothers in the workplace that often gets little coverage from the media. With media conglomerates aiming for prized demographics, usually any discussion of workplace challenges for mothers revolve around high-powered executives hitting glass ceilings as they attempt to balance family and career concerns. For most working women, that dilemma would represent a slice of heaven, for more often they worry about keeping their jobs at all when family emergencies hit

Ed goes on to explain why mandating family leave or flextime is impossible, and suggests instead that the parents accept the burden:

So what are parents to do? The simple answer would be to recast their expectations of work and salary. They should pursue opportunities for flex shifts or, where both spouses work, that their schedules allow for one parent to always be available for the children. Night shifts exist in many industries, and sometimes pay better as companies will often give a bonus for non-daytime hours. Outside intervention in the workplace only exacerbates the problem, as with union contracting, and leads to more inflexibility rather than relieving it.

So parents need to lower their salary expectations, and think hard about the kind of work they wish to take on. Possibly by having one parent take on a night shift job while the other works days. Right.

Now Ed is a conservative, and so it’s understandable that he’d take a conservative position on this. But I’m a liberal, and I think that forcing parent to make that kind of choice is something that we should have stopped in Dickens’ time.

[Update:Note that what I’m saying is very simple; for parents who don’t have the money to hire help or don’t have positions where they can create flexibility, the risk of job loss – not losing a day’s wages – needs to be socialized. yes, this means employers will have to overbudget for staff. But as this graph of profits in the last decade shows:

I think they can afford it.]

28 thoughts on “Flunking The 35 – Year Old Single Mom Test”

  1. “I think that forcing parent to make that kind of choice is something that we should have stopped in Dickens’ time.”

    To be replaced with what? Either the parents will take care of their children, or they will not. Taking care of their children might mean working longer hours to afford day care, or it might making compromises on time and income, or it might mean giving up an income in order to take the time. What other people choose to do to care for their children is not mine to judge, for the most part.

    But it’s simple economics that scare resources (your money and time, for example) have to be rationed in some way. You cannot have it all. (And this is eternally true because when we get everything we ever wanted, we find that there is more to want that we were too busy achieving our primary wants and needs to see before.) So what to do, to remove the need for parents to choose between time and money and how to care for their children?

    We could use government funds, national or local, of course, but that just means that we’re taking more money from people to give to other people for purposes that they may prefer not to contribute to. (As an example, would I willingly pay higher taxes to fund day care for all? Hell, no: I need the money to care for my kids. And we don’t use day care, because we long ago made the choice that parental time with the kids was more important than the marginal additional income.)

    If that is your solution, I refer you to the many, many, many government redistribution programs that have been undertaken over time, and their outcomes. (Hint: seldom do they achieve a fraction of their goals; frequently they cost far more than expected; neither of these is sufficient to kill the program, and in fact both are said to be reasons to throw more money at the problem.)

    If that is not your solution, I’d be very curious to see how you intend to contravene the law of supply and demand.

  2. As a side note, I should point out the dilemna mentioend above is largely responsible for the decline in birth rates in developed countries. Children are a liability, and parents realize this. Declining birth rates have massive long term effects on a nation. Hence, we shouldn’t look at this merely as a “jobs issue”, but as a national security issue.

    Russia is going to die before the end of this century because of this, unless they can suddenly stop their population decline and reverse it by a significant margin.

  3. Jeff, I haven’t raised the issue of child care (although I’ll point out that we have a broad universal childcare program from K – 12); the specific issue was one of work conditions and whether, along with such silly niceties as lunch, overtime, bathroom breaks, and sick leave (or at least the ability to get sick and not be fired), the ability of parents to have some block of time available to them to care for their child – without the risk of losing their job (I’m not even suggesting they have to get paid for it) should be added.

    As FH notes, democraphics do matter, and I’d think that policies that support childrearing would be, in general, good things.


  4. AL — you are missing the big picture here.

    The problem is affordable families. That both parents have to work to support a family shows that something is profoundly broken in family affordability. Falling birthrates in developed countries from Spain, Italy, and Japan support this as a global phenomena.

    #1. Housing. Families requires single family housing OR very safe urban environments where criminal behavior is not tolerated to the point of vigilantism. Realistically as cities have been handed over to criminal gangs of various ethniticities, this means single family houses in the suburbs.

    Dems are against this, Republicans for suburban home ownership, advantage Reps.

    2. Wages. The labor market should be so tight that, families should not fear the loss of a job by one spouse temporarily and be able to have one spouse not work for a while to take care of kids. Somehow this happened until the 1980’s; which suggests that another key factor (labor market tightness) is rapidly changing; because of massive illegal and legal immigration (primarily H1-B visas which threaten ultimately all white collar workers).

    Again advantage Reps (well Conservative ones anyway).

    3. Single motherhood? Is this what Dems should be promoting? Single motherhood rather than being celebrated should be taken as something profoundly broken socially. While feminism (and the hostility to marriage and traditional families) is part of the problem, I don’t think it’s the only one. Likely economics plays a large part as does the Sexual Revolution.

  5. Jim, I’m not talking about the broader issues – which I agree is a bouquet of thorns. I’m talking about the very simple issue that Ed raised; in a world where both parents work, and aren’t high-level enough to demand the flexibility needed (or hire the help to cover) for the ‘stuff that happens’ with kids, parents with a timeclock job risk losing that job – not just the day’s wages – for taking time to tend their child.

    He thinks the impact should be borne by the employee; I think it should be borne by the employer.


  6. I thought Ed’s discussion of the factors involved was fairly insightful, although I think he overstates the problems caused by unionized workforces. It seems to me that the tradeoff for the flexibility he mentions is that you have someone to fight for your interests. If you’re employed by a large corporation, or the government, you’re not going to get as much flexibility anyway; unions make sense from your perspective (this is separate from the question of whether public-sector unions make sense from society’s perspective, of course).

    I’m also not sure that Ed was asserting that parents _ought_ to be the primary loadbearer, so much as that they _are_ the primary loadbearer, and due to economic realities would probably continue to be. I read his comments mostly as suggestions for parents who wanted to avoid the situation described in the article, rather than advocacy of a social policy based on parents working night shifts. I thought some of his strategies for adjusting your life to deal with the reality of a sick child were insightful.

    From that point of view, advice is helpful: if you want to be a parent, and it’s a good thing to want to be, it is good to plan ahead and expect to make tradeoffs. If you’re a woman who wants a career and also children, for example, you can choose a career field in which flextime is the standard and train for it; or you can choose a field in which higher rates of pay are the standard, and expect to pay for day care. It’s helpful to point out to young women who wish to be mothers, but aren’t yet, that they might want to make that a factor in choosing what to do with their lives.

    I don’t disagree that a “sick child” standard, similar to maternity leave, could be a useful policy. There are a number of practical problems to consider, however, including the ones Ed brings up (e.g. that the employer will still have to get the job done, even though they can’t now rely on you to perform it; that the law would have to be nondiscriminatory between childless families and families with children).

    Finally, I also think commenters #2 and 4 are hitting on the top-level problem. I myself, though a parent, cut a check to the government every few months to pay for someone else’s Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits. The argument is that I’m actually paying for my own, but of course we all know the truth of it: my “entitlement” will exist if and only if there’s money in the system when I get to retirement age. That’s highly unlikely given the death-spiral of the system, coupled with the fact that reform has proven impossible due to demographic politics.

    The fact is that we’re transferring wealth away from working families, and to the retired. Ever-greater amounts of wealth. Meanwhile, the cost of children is rising, as one now more or less expects to send a child at least to college (a cost largely borne by the family — the same familiy that, during the 18 years it has to prepare for that burden, has to pay 15% of its income to the government for the social good of the elderly).

    The commenters are right: you’re a fool to have kids these days, if you’re “economic man.” None of us are, but the economic picture does cut back on the number of kids we end up having. I would have liked to have several children — I greatly enjoy being a father — but I don’t see that we can afford more than two, even if we can afford two at all.

    You can’t have everything. We’ve got Social Security and a prescription drug benefit. We’ve also got a lot fewer kids now, particularly among those who might otherwise have been likely to provide for a large, well-educated future workforce. It’s not an accident.

  7. A.L.

    Could you please source that graph? It looks very interesting. I’d like a version I could read and I am curious about how the information was collected/graphed.


  8. AL,

    Small business. Can they really afford it? Microsoft, sure. Some tiny service company that loses its receptionist with no notice? I’m not as sure.

  9. AL — I still think it’s an assumption issue.

    Back in the 50’s and 1960’s and even through the 1970’s working class families could survive on a single income. Now it takes two continuous never-stopping income.

    The affordability “employer-borne” benefits are IMHO a symptom of a deeper issue:

    It takes two incomes to raise a family. If it only takes one both your arguments and Ed’s are irrelevant. For most of the US history this was the case. Now; since the 1980’s it is not.

    What happened? Immigration legal and otherwise depressing wages.

    Europe tried your proposed scope of action and it failed. Because the fundamental problem is that two wage earners for kids means very few kids (since most people can’t afford it). Other nations have tried the private market (which also failed).

  10. Jim – I agree with your point (it takes two incomes), but not with the cause or the conclusion.

    Why? Because we – since WWII – had an immense advantage over the rest of the world economically. We don’t any more. Even without immigration, we’re competing against people who make less than we do and do the same work. That’s not sustainable.

    So our standard of living has to go down.

    But we’ve deferred that – even reveresed it (I remember when my dad bought a car in the early 60’s – and he could afford a/c which was an available and expensive option. As opposed to now…

    Or what the ‘starter houses’ he built in the 1950’s looked like compared to the starter houses today.


  11. AL, Ed has a good observation when he calls attention to the “union” aspect of this problem. Small businesses, which provide the vast majority of jobs in America, usually go the extra mile to work with an employee in any kind of need. Each employee is filling a need of the business or the employee would not be there, and the business owners usually care for their employees; I know because I’m a small business employer. Good employees are also hard to find and costly to train, and are even harder to replace, so no employer is eager to lose a valued employee (and often a friend). Most small businesses cannot pay employees for excessive missed work days (beyond ageed-to sick days), but are willing to work around temporary schedule disruptions caused by family situations.

    Having children, dependent parents, or any of a host of other responsibilities by definition creates a host of personal responsibilities for us individually, not for the people around us, including our employers. We all make life changing choices we must live with; this is part of the package called “life”.

  12. Corporations are not in the business of family development, they are in the business of making profit and creating shareholder wealth.

    A risk you take when you have a child, is the care for that child and its impact on your career. I waited until I was 33 to have my first child solely because I wasn’t in a position to care properly for her.

    Honestly, if you’re working in a low skilled, low wage industry having children isn’t a good choice, if this line of thinking prevents poor people from having children then so be it, society as a whole would benefit far more from families procreating with the means to care for their offspring, than families who can barley care for themselves doing the same.

    That said, in my experience having worked for very small to very large companies, most will indeed cut the worker some slack and negotiate hours, etc. for a worker who is valuable. Sadly, many people tend to abuse this practice and I’ve seen some companies clamp down when abuses have occurred.

    American culture as a whole could benefit from the extended family model, where grandma/grandpa (other family) maintain a closer family unit, perhaps even cohabitating within the same dwelling. I work with several foreign born people who have incorporated this aspect of their cultures into their lives here in the US and in my view it benefits them.

    I don’t think it “takes a village”, but it defiantly takes a family, and when you start to look at the demographic data of many poorer Americans, even the two parent family becomes the exception not the rule.

  13. Wow! All these months, AL has been taking abuse as a liberal in name only, and here we have a policy proposal that appears to be solely justified on the basis of empathy and a corporate profits chart.

    But I would be surprised if anyone didn’t recognize there’s a problem here.

    One of the problems with worker flexibility is the rigidity of “Wages and Hours laws.”:http://www.dol.gov/esa/whd/flsa/ Essentiallly, a presumption of the 40 hour work week is legislated into the system, making it harder to be flexible with hourly employees. It can be difficult to qualify an employee for “piece” work too.

    This is compounded by the employer practice of qualifying employees for benefits on whether they are “full time.” And in a country in which employees look first to employers as their source of affordable health care, the line between full and part time makes a lot of difference. So I suspect that if employers are no longer the main source of health care insurance, the dynamics would change as well.

    So I would argue for additional flexibility in the wages and hours law, universal catastrophic health care coverage and (for the demographic issue) more tax benefits for parents.

  14. A small company will choose to take the hit for a valued employee. Every time. Well run large companies also do this, but it becomes more difficult as the connection between the management decision to retain or dismiss an employee and the supervision of particular employees becomes remote.

    If my loyal, competent, highly-valued employee gets sick, I’m not going to look for a less qualified replacement with no loyalty to me or my company. I might get some temporary help, or I might just suck it up and deal with longer hours and expect others to do the same — and they will, if for no other reason than they’ll understand that by doing so, they demonstrate their own value to the company and ensure that should they ever need the same sort of break, they’ll get it.

    Not every employee deserves this kind of accommodation. A barely competent clock-watcher who stays just on the good side of dismissal won’t be retained through such a setback, and shouldn’t be.

    Making the job market more fluid always helps competent, consciencious workers. Making it less so helps those who are relatively more lazy and relatively less competent, at the expense of their betters. Hiring and, when necessary, firing, is already difficult enough. Making it more costly by imposing this sort of requirement on employers ultimately means that there less of the profit shown by your graphs will be available to reward good employees, making it more likely that the standard for benefits will be lowest-common denominator. Reducing the regulatory mandates, not increasing them, is the way to go.

  15. Jim Rockford,

    Our government has a support program for criminals.

    The Government’s Cocaine Price Support and Gang Finance Program.

    And people love it.

    And complain about the results.

    Way cool.

  16. Want more children?

    Make the quality of old age dependent on the number of children and grand children.

    We need less government help, not more.

  17. When the initial parental leave acts came into being, they were the source of numerous heated debates. The most telling, honest and scary revelation came from a near-retiring Human Resources director who was blunt.

    “Disaster for women”. He said.

    Pressed for details, he pointed out that any woman of child-bearing age, particularly with Irish, Italian or Hispanic surname would never again be put on an executive track.

    Catholicism (at least implied) and it’s birth control restrictions, of reproductive age, and in reasonable economic shape.

    “What am I gonna do? Put these women in critical positions and have them check out for months when they deliver? Replace them with what? Temps? For a V.P. posish? Not gonna happen.”

    No responsible HR person could jeopardize the health and performance of his/her company that way. It’s not sexism, kid-ism or anything else.

    It’s survival. It’s just common sense.

    Apply same to the problem at hand.

  18. > He thinks the impact should be borne by the employee; I think it should be borne by the employer.

    What will a rational employer do in response?

    I’d be a lot more impressed if AL was putting his money where his mouth is. If “biz” is making too much money, why isn’t AL out there making less and doing the right thing? Or, if as he claims, doing the right thing is more profitable, making more AND doing the right thing.

    Instead, he’s spending other people’s money. I guess that’s why he needs the guns.

  19. heldmyw – you know, its funny but most of my clients are big corporations. And I just see a whole lot of women in the executive offices there. So that’s my anecdotal evidence. Do you have anything empirical that suggests a dampening of hiring of women?

    If I get some time, I’ll take a peek, but this is a busy week for me.

    Andy – yeah, than nasty confiscatory government. Sadly, property is a relationship created in law, not a right. Ask Disney.

    My point isn’t that “biz” is making too much or too little money. It’s that a claim that “business” can’t afford this isn’t borne out by facts, and I’m fond of facts.


  20. > It’s that a claim that “business” can’t afford this isn’t borne out by facts

    Nice strawman claim, but the refutation doesn’t actually refute it.

    It’s a strawman because the relevant questions are whether “we” should be paying for this instead of something else and who gets to make the decision.

    Me – I like profits, because that’s how you get things to grow. I also like the folks with skin in the game to make the decisions.

    Then again, I figured out years ago that working conditions that didn’t suit me were the world’s way of telling me that I should figure out how to move up the food chain.

  21. A.L., there is little doubt that business can afford it but the relevant fact is that business does not have to afford it – with such options as off-shoring to allow them to find the labor they want at the terms they want.

    I’ve seldom been concerned about offshoring solely for reasons of wages, confident as I am of the work output of the American worker, but your proposal reduces the ability of American business to bargain for the work that they require.

  22. “heldmyw – you know, its funny but most of my clients are big corporations. And I just see a whole lot of women in the executive offices there. So that’s my anecdotal evidence. Do you have anything empirical that suggests a dampening of hiring of women? ”

    Empirical evidence has been right in front of us for years, the illusive glass ceiling. “Why Men Earn More”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0814472109/qid=1147901286/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/104-5963740-6943163?s=books&v=glance&n=283155 by Warren Farrell explores this issue extensively. There is a study in there (no source, sorry) of unmarried/no kids men vs unmarried/no kids women and women make 115% _more_ money than men on average. The bottom line is that the earnings gap is due to decision making in the reproductive years, but also due to decisions made following that to that compound. For instance women running their own companies work significantly less (and make less) than men who own their own companies. Reason given- Women tend to start their own businesses to make their own hours and schedules, men generally do it to make money.

    Becoming a high powered executive we are talking huge investments of hours for years and years. Some women certainly do do it, but how many of them have children? Its really all about decision making, but the key here is that women make less money, but they end up significantly happier.

    Farrell’s book basically says women shouldnt be trying to emulate men to close that gap, its men who should be emulating women to live longer and happier lives.

  23. Guys, we’re not talking about C-level executives (although there are more women there than there have ever been before).

    You’ve made me fight dirty – I went and looked up the facts.

    Per the “US Dep’t of Labor”:http://www.dol.gov/wb/factsheets/Qf-laborforce-05.htm

    46% of the workforce are women.

    “Women accounted for 50% of all workers in the high-paying management, professional, and related occupations.”

    So women are over-represented at the higher levels of employment. If there were a hiring effect such as has been suggested, is that likely to be true?


  24. AL “confuses” choice with mandate.

    I’ve nothing against a biz choosing to give preferential treatment to working mothers, red-headed Albanians, or Wobblies. My objection is to mandates, or rather, to “the commons” not paying its own way.

    If there’s some social benefit to providing different working conditions to certain people, let’s pay employers who choose to provide those conditions to those people. Yes, “pay” means “govt gives money to participating employers and thus doesn’t have that money to spend on roads or has to borrow or collect more taxes”. That’s a feature.

    Yes, if we don’t pay enough, some employers won’t do it. That’s also a feature.

  25. So, Andy, the money to pay those employers who follow the government’s “recommendation” (read: “complies with condition in order to obtain competetive advantage”) will come from . . . where/whom? Maybe we can raise the social security tax cap to the level of the typical two-executive paycheck family and have the government borrow the required funds from the social security trust fund – – that is, make it a program that “pays for itself,” or at least what passes for self-funding in lefty-speak. Or maybe we can just go a few steps further down the path being explored by AL and opt for a centrally directed economy, rather than a market one, and lose the antiquated concept of “private property.” Not what you had in mind, I’m sure, but socialist welfare states aren’t usually planned developments, but are the societal equivalent of suburban sprawl.

  26. Doh! Sorry, Andy. I read your comment too quickly and missed the last part of your comment. Never mind.

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