Dreaming Across Class Lines
Work-life balance is a must, especially for the poor
This article is part of a package on the American Dream. For more, read Reimagining the American Dream, A New National Narrative, Tear Down the White Picket Fence, and The Pursuit of Square Footage.
In recent years, work-life balance has grown from a buzz phrase to a core white-collar value. For many working professionals, quality family time, holistic wellness, and leisure are now part and parcel of the American Dream.
For other Americans, strategies for prioritizing kids’ soccer games or ignoring the BlackBerry during dinner are a bit under the radar. Work-life balance for low-income workers means something more fundamental: the ability to provide for their families while also caring for them at home. Unfortunately, the people with the greatest need for jobs that promote balance are also the least likely to have them.
The term “low income” generally refers to households that earn less than twice the federal poverty level, or about $42,400 for a family of four. As Katherine S. Newman and Victor Tan Chen explain in The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America (Beacon, 2007), these Americans enjoy neither the comforts of the middle class nor the help of government programs aimed at those with even less. Their situations are often precarious: A medical crisis or an increase in housing costs can push them into poverty. So can a lousy job that doesn’t support work-life balance.
Better jobs offer paid family leave and sick days, which, unlike unpaid leave, are not required by federal law. These paid days off enable employees to take care of children, elders, and themselves without losing precious income or risking their jobs. Better jobs also allow flexible scheduling and telecommuting, which give workers tangible power to prioritize their responsibilities. Another form of flexibility is the option to work part time without giving up all benefits and advancement opportunities—crucial to many working mothers, as the Christian Science Monitor (Sept. 17, 2007) reports.
These policies are helpful to all employees and especially to parents. For low-income workers, they’re critical. But, according to citizen advocacy group MomsRising, flexibility options come mostly with higher-wage work. Dollars & Sense (Sept.-Oct. 2007) reports that the same is true of paid sick days.
Stingy employers are misguided—because family-friendly policies are good for business, too. Mother Load, a 2007 special report from the American Prospect, describes how paid days off and flexibility lead to more engaged and more productive employees, fewer unexpected absences, and lower turnover. Paid leave and sick days also benefit public health, since without them people are more likely to come to work sick.