Dreaming Across Class Lines

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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.

Most importantly, work-life balance is good for people, who shouldn’t have to choose between buying their kids groceries and caring for them when they’re sick. A family-friendly workplace can make the difference between keeping a job and being forced to give it up. It can also determine whether an employee can take on the new responsibilities that come with a promotion.

In other words, work-life balance affects not only security but also upward mobility, which is at the heart of the American Dream. In recent years, the very rich have quickly been getting even richer. People at other income levels aren’t sharing in this growth. As Jared Bernstein explains in Crunch (see below), this rising inequality is largely to blame for the fact that, even before the economy’s recent turn for the worse, many Americans have been feeling financially squeezed.

When wealth is concentrated more and more in the hands of a few, everybody else suffers. Low-income workers with limited skills and safety nets face especially long odds and high stakes. Writing on his blog (Feb. 4, 2008), former U.S. secretary of labor Robert Reich notes that improving wages and mobility requires more progressive taxes, stronger unions, better schools, and broader access to higher education. Work-life balance is just one piece of a complicated project, but it’s a crucial one–because it’s virtually impossible to keep a job, much less get promoted, when even being there prevents you from being a responsible parent.

Despite the benefits to everyone involved, it can be tough to convince managers to initiate family-friendly policy changes–so laws that set standards are important, too. Last year saw the introduction of federal legislation on both paid sick days and flexible work. Several state and local initiatives are already in place.

Hard work is supposed to create success, in turn freeing us from the constant need to assign work a higher priority than everything else. But the relatively well-off in fact owe much of their good fortune to privilege and luck. Even allowing that the myth of the self-made American has some truth to it, our changing economy makes it more of a long shot than ever.

Hard work won’t help people move up in the world if it keeps them from meeting their responsibilities at home. When we frame work-life balance as a reward for those who achieve a certain status, we get this cause and effect exactly backward.

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