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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

Many have recently sung the praises of America's "miracle economy," which continues to soar even during a global economic downturn. The stock market has flourished, and some of the wealth has trickled down to average 
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 
Family-Centered Labor Market Policy," looked primarily at possible cures. The Labor Guild, a 1400-member member organization that runs an evening school for rank-and-file union members, brought together 175 labor, corporate, 
political, community and academic leaders.  In piecemeal fashion, speakers laid out a variety of remedies including 
the adoption of family-friendly practices in the workplace.
     Though many large companies have such policies on paper, the corporate culture often frowns upon those who take advantage of flexible work arrangements and paid or unpaid leave, according to several experts who spoke 
here at Northeastern University.

     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 
received a tepid review at the Labor Guild conference.
"That is hardly being family friendly," said Lotte Bailyn, a management professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "That is allowing you to work more and more. It obviously doesn't reduce the pressures on families. And there is a clear danger here." She was referring to the danger of making family life revolve around the workplace.
     Bailyn traces the problems back to a managerial mindset that emphasizes control over workers, and to a raft of assumptions including the notion that the best workers are those who put in the most hours.

     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 
decisions about schedules and time off in the hands of self-managing work teams.

     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, 
then that means you could spend another hour or two at work," he explained in an interview.

     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 
standard of living do so largely through over-time pay or second and third jobs, he said.

     "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 
programs for children of single mothers, especially those coming off welfare.

     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 
training and education as the answer, labor officials emphasized a need to boost the minimum wage and unionize low-wage sectors.

     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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