How Deregulated Markets Undermine Sound Families
In industrial capitalist societies today, the market is one of the most important institutions - probably the most important institution in many countries - that affects families’ ability to accomplish the caretaking and human development tasks we need them to perform. Workers’ participation in the labor market affects how much and which blocks of time they have for the caretaking of family members. Families’ ability to provide income for their members depends on their ability to negotiate pay in the labor market or otherwise to make money, as well as on general market conditions. Market forces also influence how long a parent can stay home after the birth of a child and whether and when they will return to work. The same is true for how much time off family members can take to take care of ailing family members. Finally, both parents’ income and the market price of daycare determine the quality of daycare they can afford if they do work. The same is true for the paid home health or caretaking services a family can afford for sick family members or those with disabilities. Given the extent to which the market influences how families function, this part makes the case that the state must regulate the market to support the conditions sound families need.
The view that government should regulate the market to support families is starkly opposed to the public policy that reigns in the United States. In the last half century, U.S. politicians and regulators have increasingly chosen to deregulate markets, on the view that a booming “free market” is all that families need to flourish. Of course, anyone who has paid any amount of attention to markets knows that they are never truly free or unregulated. A market system couldn’t exist in the absence of significant government regulation, including laws that established a stable currency, enforced property rights, backed contracts with the force of law, and so forth. What this means is that when people use the terms “free” or “deregulated” to apply to markets, they don’t really mean these markets aren’t regulated at all. Instead, they mean that these markets aren’t regulated with nonmarket goals in mind, like promoting fairness, good family lives, or other social welfare goals. I’ll use these terms in the same way in this chapter.
Public policy that focuses on deregulating markets, which I’ll call “free-market policy,” is supposed to give families everything they need to thrive. In fact, politicians, pundits, and many Americans believe that insulating families from market forces makes them weaker and “dependent” on government. A vast array of empirical evidence from these last decades demonstrates this prevailing regulatory theory is emphatically wrong. To keep the scope of this chapter within reasonable bounds, I’ll demonstrate why this is the case specifically for families with young children. A similar case could be made focusing on parents of older children, adults with aging parents, or the many other family relationships that are inadequately supported today.
In the last five decades, the U.S. economy has tripled. Yet mushrooming rates of economic inequality and insecurity have increasingly destabilized poor and working-class American families. Today, opposite-sex couples without college degrees are marrying far less than they used to (Reeves, Sawhill, and Krause 2016; Wilcox and Marquardt 2010, 15). This isn’t because they don’t want to marry. In fact, the vast majority aspire to marriage and believe it is the best family arrangement for children (McLanahan 2009, 118). Instead, they don’t because they don’t see themselves and their partners as economically stable enough (Gibson- Davis, Edin, and McLanahan 2005, 1307). Their hesitation to marry particularly reflects the dimmer economic prospects for the men in these communities in recent decades. The collapse of U.S. manufacturing jobs means that more men today are competing for low-skill jobs that pay less, have fewer opportunities for advancement, and are less secure than several decades ago. The couples who would have married decades ago have cut back bearing children, but not by as much as they have decreased marriage. The result is that the rates of nonmarital births among poor and working-class women have shot up (Cherlin 2014, 6-7, 9-10, 126). The unmarried relationships into which these children are born are far more likely to break up than marriages. These fragile relationships create complex and unstable family patterns that result in worse outcomes for children (Cherlin 2014, 5; McLanahan 2009, 120).
Yet poor and working-class families are not the only ones being hurt by market forces. Adults in families from the top to the bottom of the income ladder are being thrown into tumult by employees’ work schedules. Full-time U.S. workers worked an average 47-hour workweek in 2014 (Saad 2014). This is a far longer workweek than workers put in in other wealthy democracies, all of which limit work hours to protect families (OECD 2019; Gornick and Meyers 2003, 157, 161). What is more, because more women work today than did half a century ago, most families today work almost double the paid work hours that U.S. families worked two generations ago (Jacobs and Gerson 2004; Mishel 2013). Two-earner families in the United States - six in ten of all married couples - now spend a combined average of 83 hours a week at their paid jobs (Medalia and Jacobs 2008, 149 tbl. 6.3). This leaves families far less total time away from paid work to deal with caretaking, homemaking, and the rest of their lives.
Focusing only on the average family’s work schedule, though, misses a key way that market forces are undercutting American families. It turns out that far fewer workers today work schedules close to the average number of hours (Frase and Gornick 2013, 709-710). Since the 1970s, market forces have increasingly divided workers and their families into two very different groups. One group - generally those more educated, with higher incomes - is working far more hours than the already high average hours of American parents. Meanwhile, another group - generally those less educated, with lower incomes - works far fewer hours. College graduates are far more likely to work 50 hours or more a week than workers with less education (Jacobs and Gerson 2004, 31-40, 48-55; Kuhn and Lozano 2008, 311-319). The price of good jobs that support your family today is spending a massive part of your life in paid work.
The long work hours that many American workers now put in encroach heavily on family lives. Almost half of workers who work 50 or more hours a week regularly work on weekends (Jacobs and Gerson 2004, 35). Even an employee at the low end of those hours would likely need to work a full five hours over the weekend, which would still leave 45 hours to be worked during the week. This is a long schedule for parents with young kids. Assuming an average commute of 25 minutes each way and a half-hour for lunch, the parent would be gone for almost ten and a half hours a day. With a 7:30 a.m. drop-off at daycare, that only puts the parent back for daycare pickup at 6:00 - not a lot of time for spending quality time with young children and almost none for the rest of life’s obligations and pleasures.
This time crunch is exacerbated for parents of young children who also have aging parents - the so-called “sandwich generation.” One-quarter of Americans with a parent aged 65 or older report that the parent needs help with handling affairs or caring for themselves (Parker and Patten 2013, 1, 7). Most of the family members who provide care are employed (Feinberg and Choula 2012, 1). Of those who provide care, more than half say that providing this assistance is stressful (Parker et al. 2015, 41).
The less-educated parents at the bottom of the economic ladder face their own, even greater, set of challenges as a result of the market. They have the opposite problem from families at the top: too few hours of paid work. Increasing numbers of them work fewer than 30 hours a week (Jacobs and Gerson 2004, 34-37; Kuhn and Lozano 2008, 318). This drop in hours, together with their decreased real wages, makes it a constant struggle to support their families. On top of that, the parents in these families are increasingly being assigned work through high-tech scheduling systems. These systems maximize employer profits by moving workers from place to place and time to time to match customer demand with little advance notice. They are then dismissed from work when customer demand is lower than expected (Kantor and Hodgson 2014). As if those aren’t enough burdens to put on the shoulders of low-wage families, workers are increasingly being asked to work nights and weekends. More than a quarter of U.S. workers perform some work between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Almost one in every three U.S. workers works over the weekend (Hamermesh and Stancanelli 2015, 1009 tbl.l, tbl.2). Working these irregular hours can wreak havoc on family schedules (Wight, Raley, and Bianchi 2008, 266-267).
If family members don’t want to work the long and irregular hours so many Americans do, why don’t they just say no? Doing so would leave those workers who want to work more or work irregular hours to negotiate for longer hours with more pay, right? This approach is how most U.S. policymakers claim markets work. The problem with this argument is that it misses the way that inequality and insecurity, both of which have mushroomed in the American economy in past decades, affect workers’ ability to bargain for what they want. It turns out that inequality, particularly at the top of the economic ladder, increases the incentives for workers to work long hours in hopes of making it up those next rungs (Bell and Freeman 2001, 200). This is particularly the case when inequality increases within a particular job category (Kuhn and Lozano 2005, 31). Increases in economic insecurity also motivate longer hours from workers. Even relatively small doubts about job security have this effect. This is true not just for low-wage workers but also for workers close to the top of the economic ladder (Boswell, Olson-Buchanan, and Harris 2014; Sverke, Hellgren, and Naswall 2002).
All of this - the growing economic inequality, combined with increasing economic insecurity - create, in Harvard economist Richard Freeman’s words, both a carrot and stick that push Americans to work long hours:
The carrot is that Americans who work hard have a better chance of being promoted, moving up in the wide distribution of earnings, and experiencing substantial earnings increases. The stick is that Americans who lose their jobs suffer greatly because the United States has a minimal safety net for the unemployed.
(Freeman 2007, 59)
One place that the pressure to work more shows up clearly is with workers’ vacation time. The United States is the only wealthy country that does not mandate that employees receive paid vacation time. Three- quarters of employers still provide some paid vacation or holidays off, although for significantly fewer days than European countries require. When employees do get paid time, the average number of days is 16, including vacation days and paid holidays. This is about half the number of days employees receive in Austria, Finland, and France (Ray, Sanes, and Schmitt 2013,2,4 tbl. 2). Yet in 2010 almost half of American workers didn’t take all of their available leave. In contrast, nine in ten French workers took all of the much longer leave available to them (Reuters/ Ipsos 2010).
Why do U.S. workers leave the meager amount of paid vacation time that they do get on the table? Because of the powerful mix of economic inequality and insecurity we’ve been brewing in the United States for the past half century. Employees are significantly more likely to take less vacation time the more insecure they feel on their job (Maume 2006, 184). Something similar happens when it comes to paternity leave. Fathers report that they would like to take more leave but don’t because of fear that they will be judged as less committed to their work (Harrington et al. 2015, 10). Family lives suffer as a result.
All this results in most U.S. working parents reporting difficulty balancing work and family, as well as high levels of stress. More than a third say they always feel rushed, even to do the things they have to do (Parker and Wang 2013, 19). This time stress is worse toward the top of the economic ladder. Seven in ten mothers with a college degree report that it is difficult for them to balance work and family life. Six in ten college- graduate fathers report the same (Pew Research Center 2015, 5).
But families at the bottom and, increasingly, the middle of the ladder have their own reasons to stress, since many of them worry about being unable to put food on the table for their kids. It’s not just poor folks who have income that falls below the poverty line for some periods these days: an astounding 94 percent of people who earn between 100 percent and
150 percent of the poverty line fall under that line for at least one month per year. Among all Americans, over one-third - roughly 98 million people - were officially poor for at least two months between 2009 and 2012 (Morduch and Schneider 2017, 159; U.S. Census Bureau 2016). And many who don’t fall below the poverty line are just one emergency away from that fate: in 2017, four in ten Americans reported not being able to cover an unexpected expense of $400 (Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System 2018, 21).
While the U.S. market is tough on parents, it’s even tougher on children. The expectation that parents will arrange for their children’s needs privately through the market is devastating for U.S. kids, violating the liberal state’s responsibility to support the caretaking and human development of its youngest citizens. The harm done to them will most likely be permanent. Most of what experts have learned about children’s development in the last quarter-century shows the importance of children’s first five years to their later achievement. In those first years, children establish either a fragile or a sturdy foundation for development throughout the rest of their lives. If children don’t get what they need to flourish in those first years, this crucial window of opportunity is lost. It’s much harder and more expensive to correct problems later on, if they can be corrected at all (Harvard Center on the Developing Child 2007, 1).
A sound foundation requires, among other things, that children in their first years receive excellent caretaking, as well as adequate and stable material support. The problem here is that most young parents can provide one or the other - excellent caretaking or adequate material support - but not both, given that they are relatively early in their work lives, and are therefore making less than they likely will later, and have little money saved (Fry et al. 2011). If they stay home with their new child for the first months - the caretaking arrangement that research suggests is generally best for young kids (Waldfogel 2006, 49-57) - they can’t give their kids the stable material support they need. But if they return to work to put food on the table, most can’t afford the quality daycare their children need to develop best (Child Care Aware (CCA) of America 2016, 36-38). The difficulties for today’s new parents in the United States are exacerbated by the fact that young couples have far less wealth than they used to, in part because of the steep rise in the cost of housing in the last decades, as well as the tremendous rise in the price of college (Fry et al. 2011).
Children from poor families have the toughest time in this free-market system. This is in part because parents likely can’t provide the stable, adequate material support that their kids need. Yet we know that young kids need a baseline of consistent material support to do well. One recent study of U.S. grade schoolers showed that poverty in early childhood actually altered the physical makeup of children’s brains. Children exposed to poverty in early childhood had less brain matter in areas that affect academic achievement, stress regulation, and emotion processing (Luby et al. 2013; Hair et al. 2015). This helps explain why poor kids not only miss more school and do worse in school in the short term but they also have poorer health, lower educational achievement, lower earnings, and higher mortality rates over the long term (Chaudry and Wimer 2016; Ratcliffe 2015; Cohen et al. 2010. On top of that, the cost of excellent daycare far exceeds what low-wage parents can pay. These children therefore largely end up in subpar daycare (Child Care Aware (CCA) of America 2016, 38-39). Finally, the strain from working the long hours they have to work to make ends meet combined with the stress of raising a family in poverty leave these parents with few emotional reserves to parent well when they do finally come home at the end of the day (Yeung, Linver, and Brooks-Gunn 2002, 1875). In short, it’s hard to think of a system less likely to deliver the circumstances children need to develop well than our current free-market system delivers to poor children.