Symposium | The Unseen Election

Is Family Economics Enough?

By Mark Schmitt

Tagged child careFamiliesHillary ClintonWomen

Women’s rights are human rights” remains one of Hillary Clinton’s most memorable public statements, her first independent step onto the global stage in Beijing in 1995. Her campaign will put to a test a similar concept, which might be paraphrased as, “Women’s issues are economic issues; economic issues are women’s issues.”

We tend to think of domestic policy issues as coming in two varieties. On one side are big economic issues: macro choices about job creation, monetary policy, Wall Street regulation, trade, infrastructure spending, tax rates, big social insurance programs, and unions. This is sometimes called “lunch-pail economics,” or “pocketbook economics”—terms that suggest one partner earning the money and the other counting it out against the cost of gas and groceries later in the week.

On the other side are what are called children’s issues, family issues or women’s issues. Under the standard liberal theory, only after you’ve gotten the big economic decisions right can you move on to “nice” things like child care. My favorite example of the distinction: When Bruce Babbitt, as governor of Arizona in the late 1980s, proposed a policy focus on children, his state’s leading paper denounced him for serving up “quiche” rather than “meat and potatoes.”

Being as enthusiastic about policy as Donald Trump is about finding the perfect insult, Hillary Clinton has put forth a detailed agenda on each and every item from both the quiche and carnivore sides of the menu, including an ambitious infrastructure proposal. It makes it hard to identify priorities, leading some to argue that there’s no coherent ideological structure to these promises. But Clinton has put a much heavier emphasis, in most speeches and interviews, on issues such as child care, where she’s elevated an ambitious plan to improve both the quality and availability of care, and a new family caregiver tax credit.

If voters don’t have jobs or worry about losing them, or their wages are well below what’s needed to support a family, child care and caregiver tax credits won’t be much consolation. If voters tempted by Trump are motivated by economic anxiety, as some contend, then the Democratic Party should offer a more ambitious, credible plan to generate more jobs and raise wages, not just the minimum wage. In a full-employment economy, many liberal economists argue, all good things are possible; without it, everything—politics as well as economics—is a nasty struggle over scarce resources.

But Hillary Clinton is trying something a little different: She’s testing the idea that what were once thought of as “family” or “children’s” issues can actually form that plan—that they are not an afterthought to lunch-pail decisions, but can provide the foundation of a broader economic agenda. This is economics that is linked to the inclusive, pluralistic vision of a country that is finally ready to elect a woman to the presidency, and that respects and acknowledges the many different forms of households and families that make up the country.

Perhaps American anxiety isn’t caused by wages and employment levels, but because the modern workplace can be so brutal.

It is likely to be a smart bet. The election takes place at an unusual economic moment. It’s not full employment, but the macroeconomic picture is about as promising as could be hoped for, even in Rust Belt states. Unemployment is at the lowest point in almost a decade, wages are finally rising, the long hangover from the Great Recession is lifting. Far more could and should have been done during the Obama years, especially if government had been willing to invest in infrastructure at the moment when it was obsessed with the deficit. But compared to other developed countries, especially those in Europe that embraced austerity, our economy is now doing remarkably well.

Nonetheless, American families seem nearly as anxious and discontented as ever. Consumer confidence has dipped in recent months and the percentage of Americans who say the country is on “the wrong track” is almost as high as it was during the recession. Perhaps that’s not because of wages, income, and employment levels, but because life in the modern workplace can be so brutal. It’s not just that work doesn’t provide enough cash for a family; it doesn’t provide enough time or security. On-demand scheduling, which sometimes masquerades as “flexibility,” makes it impossible to plan child care or schedule other needs. According to economist Heather Boushey in her book, Finding Time, almost half of low-income young workers have no voice in their work schedules. And the class differences when it comes to basic expectations of time and humane working conditions are staggering: Only one in five low-income workers has access to paid sick days, while almost all high-income workers do.

Upper-middle class Americans can absorb all the statistics about income inequality but it’s very difficult for many of us to feel the very different experiences of work and family life for most other Americans. To be reminded that “sick days” and “vacation days” are an unknown luxury to a majority of low-income workers can be astonishing. And while we listen to peers whine about their nanny problems, the majority of working parents struggle to find any care that is affordable, safe, and that can match their work schedules.

The move toward treating the economics of time as central to the economy doesn’t begin with Clinton. The Obama Administration’s new rule on overtime pay—raising the threshold below which workers are presumed eligible for overtime from $27,000 to $47,000—should be seen as a dramatic economic move, worthy of FDR, not a frill. It will simultaneously put more money in workers’ pockets and set limits on the degree to which their time can be claimed by their employers. (And, ideally, will force employers to hire more people rather than just extract more from existing workers.) For several years, Boushey and a few other economists have been constructing the argument that puts family and time at the center rather than the margins of economic policy, defining it as key to sustainable productivity growth.

It’s a persuasive economic argument. The election will test whether it can also be a winning political platform.

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Mark Schmitt is the director of the political reform program at New America.

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