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For Better or Worse: What Is The "Miracle Economy" Doing For & To Families
By: William Bole
Our Sunday Visitor
April 18, 1999
workers. Analysts, though, have apparently given less thought to how families are faring in these outwardly good times. And that, at least in a Catholic social sense, is the leading indicator of economic well being.
Last month, a Church-sponsored organization held a daylong conference here in hopes of kindling a debate over what the supposedly miracle economy is doing for, and to, working families, especially the more vulnerable ones.
A report issued in advance of the March 22 gathering found, in essence, that a startling number of workers must perform something like a miracle every day in order to find adequate time for spouses and children, or merely to stay off welfare and out of poverty. Increasingly, if they want to do better economically or simply hold their ground, workers must "trade off" family activities for work, according to the study prepared for the Labor Guild of the Archdiocese of Boston and its eight annual labor-management conference.
Specifically, the study found that the gains in average family income over the past few years have come largely through a dramatic increase of hours worked by mothers. "This means a lessening of the parent's role in providing the family structure that socializes and determines the future of the children. It affects the wellbeing of every child, spiritual and ethical as well as physical and social," said Auxiliary Bishop William Murphy of Boston, citing the study by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.
Bishop Murphy told the gathering: "The consequent loss of family-centered, family-focused time and energy, is obvious in the social pathologies of our cities and our suburbs, with kids on drugs, poor achievement at school, the loss of a sense of place and identity and all its attendant ills."
While diagnosing the ills, the conference,
titled "Building a
A growing number of companies do offer what
they term "work-life" or family benefits - such as on-site child care,
from morning until night, and even concierge services that run personal
chores for employees. Yet while touted by popular business and women's
magazines, these kinds of benefits
She and her MIT colleagues have helped firms
including Xerox Corporation examine work settings through what Bailyn calls
the "work-family lens." The result, in a few corporate units, has been
a radical restructuring that puts
Jesuit Father Edward F. Boyle, who heads the
Labor Guild, echoed the concern about family "benefits" like concierge
services offered by some Fortune 500 companies. "If you don't even have
to go home to do your laundry,
In Bailyn's view, the old battle cry of a "family
wage" must now give way to a new call for a "family week," meaning a workweek
that leaves enough time for family and community responsibilities. Though
agreeing with Bailyn, Father Boyle added in the interview that the family
wage, a tenet of Catholic social teaching, is inseparable from the quest
for a family-oriented workweek. He pointed to studies indicating that most
blue-collar workers have seen their hourly wages erode over the past two
decades. Those who keep up their
"You have to work 50 hours a week just to make a living wage," Father Boyle said. "If you had a living wage, there wouldn't be so much pressure on spouses to work, or they wouldn't have to work so many hours."
Such apprehension seems hard to square with the current view of some commentators that Americans have never been more prosperous and content. Recent polls show that most Americans do feel they are better off than they were a year ago, said Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes of the Center for Work and Family at Boston College. At the same time, however, they say the strains on their families due to work demands have worsened. "To a large extent, they [workers] feel that this part of their life is out of control," she said.
The latest rush of family-related benefits suggests that corporate America has tuned into these anxieties. From a Catholic social view, Bishop Murphy gave a blessing to certain policies - such as extended family leave and job-sharing - that help workers tend to their own family needs.
Ann Bookman of Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., pointed out that unlike programs such as on-site childcare, "workplace leave policies take employees out of the workplace and give priority and value to the kind of work needed to build strong families and communities." On that note, Bookman, who headed a commission that evaluated the first three years of the Family and Medical Leave Act, called for an expansion of the federal law signed by President Clinton six years ago. For example, the law allows many workers to take unpaid leave when a family member becomes ill, but makes no provision for other family duties, such as trips to the pediatrician and school meetings with teachers.
From an economist's perspective, Neeta Fogg
of Center for Labor Market Studies noted that corporations have little
incentive to grant family-oriented benefits to lower-skilled workers. (Their
labor is less in demand, and their incomes have actually fallen during
the economic boom.) To help fill in the gaps, religious leaders here vowed
to set up after-school
Still, in a panel discussion of corporate and
community initiatives, no one argued with Anthony Sapienza of Riverside
Manufacturing Company when he interjected, "Raising wages - that's the
most family-friendly thing you could do." He was speaking of low-paid workers
in particular. While he sees
That divergence of opinion seemed to underscore an opening remark by Thomas Kochan, an MIT professor who heads the Industrial Relations Research Association. "Society desperately needs a dialogue on the dignity of work and how it affects families," said Kochan, whose group co-sponsored the regional forum and plans to hold five others like it around the country.
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