I’ve read a flurry of articles in the past week to accompany data that show changing gender roles in earning power and marriage. Many of these articles accompany flip headlines and amusing photos—images of the 1980’s comedy “Mr. Mom,” or tales of high-earning career women marrying men far less high-powered, simply because, apparently, women now can. This is typical media hype: the truth is, in most two-parent families both partners have to work, the burden is more or less shared, and it’s tough. Data from the 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce show that women, on average, contribute 44% of their family’s annual income. Women play a critical role in their family’s economic survival, even if they are not formally the primary breadwinner.
Data also show that while the majority of employed women still report taking the lion share of responsibility for childcare and household chores, men are catching up. Gender roles are changing. And work-life conflict—the stress that we all experience from trying to manage work and home responsibilities— is at an all time high among men and women.
In his State of the Union address tonight, President Obama is expected to propose to nearly double the child care tax credit for families earning less than $85,000, so families could claim up to $3,000 in expenses for one child and up to $6,000 for two. Families earning less than $115,000 would also see their tax credit increase, “though not by as much.” In its fact sheet heralding the announcement, the White House noted,
“Two-thirds of families with children are headed by two working parents or a single working parent. But child care costs have grown twice as fast as the median income of families with children since 2000….monthly child care fees for two children at any age are higher than the median cost of rent. Meanwhile, the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit has only increased once in 28 years and is not indexed for inflation.
For parents in the sandwich generation, Obama will also announce elder care benefits to ease caregivers’ burdens.
In the midst of the questionable outcome of his health care reform bill, the child care and elder care programs have been criticized as mere tokens, a small gesture when American families are in fact reeling and need major public policy reform.
In a study released by the Center for American Progress yesterday, Heather Boushey and Joan Williams write “The United States today has the most family-hostile public policy in the developed world due to a long-standing political impasse. The only major piece of federal legislation designed to help Americans manage work and family life, the Family and Medical Leave Act, was passed in 1993, nearly two decades ago.”
Last January we hoped for more substantive changes such as those recently echoed by Michelle Obama, who said only last week that “Staying home to care for a sick child or taking an elderly parent to a doctor’s appointment shouldn’t mean risking one’s job…Things like paid family leave and sick days and affordable child care should be the norm, not the exception.”
As the cold reality of legislating meets dreams of change, we must continue to hold our President and leaders accountable and remind them of the new normal in America. New family structures demand new public policy support. Tax credits don’t make child care much more affordable, and don’t change the fact that many parents work schedules make merely getting a kid to day care a and home again a daily challenge. But by so publicly acknowledging the care needs of working families, the Obama Administration is at least attempting to make good on its promise to support the real struggles of working families.
In response to critics, Vice President Biden said, “They’re big-deal things if you’re just able to give some respite for a husband and wife, both working, to give a little bit of help.”
But as the Economist magazine recently stated, "If the empowerment of women was one of the great changes of the past 50 years, dealing with its social consequences will be one of the great challenges of the next 50." If working families are to thrive once again, we will need a lot more than a little bit of help from policy makers. The State of the Union promise is a start, but we have much more to accomplish.
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