Heather Boushey’s Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict is a study of changing patterns of work in America and the pressures that longer hours place on families and individuals. Boushey dedicated the book to “all those too busy to read this book, in the hope that it reaches those with the power to find and return our lost time.” Having just been named chief economist for Hillary Clinton’s transition planning team, Boushey’s own access to that power seems on the rise. That’s good news for American families.
Boushey’s work both in Finding Time and as Executive Director and Chief Economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth is about taking work-family policy off the Style pages and into the realm of serious economic issues. In fact, she hates the term “work-family policy,” which brings to mind working mothers and child care. “Compared with traditional male issues,” she writes, “work-family policy doesn’t sound serious. It sounds like something that should take a backseat to real economic matters. As a result, politicians tend to trot out their positions on work-family issues when courting female voters ahead of elections, only to forget them after the victory lap.”
It’s this very dynamic that results in scenes like Ivanka Trump delivering a Republican National Convention speech touting her father’s commitment to providing relief for working families in terms no one could recall ever hearing from the candidate himself.
In contrast, Boushey shows that the kinds of policy changes she recommends—all currently in place in various parts of the country—are crucial to America’s economic well-being.
Researchers studying the kinds of policies that families and households need to make ends meet, and in turn what businesses need from their employees, have some surprising findings to share. Across a range of different social science traditions, methods, and topics, they find that addressing sources of anxiety inside the home has a profound impact on what happens outside the home, including in the larger economy, and can affect the current and future competitiveness of American firms and workers. That’s why I prefer the term work-life policies. This phrase reminds us of the intimate connection between the hours we clock for a job and the off-the-job hours that support strong families and a strong economy.
Finding Time is focused on core economic questions: If we sought to alleviate family economic insecurity today, what would our agenda look like? Would our efforts be good or bad for the economy overall? Rather than submitting to the bog of partisan squabbles over “handouts,” Boushey urges us to think about how keeping people gainfully employed while they care for their families benefits the economy overall. It’s in that vein that she presents solutions to everyday economic problems facing workers across four areas: Here (at home), There (at work), Care, and Fair.
From the book:
The first area addresses a worker’s occasional need to be at home. There are days when a worker cannot be at work because he’s sick, his child’s sick, or he needs to care for an ailing family member. This doesn’t mean that he can’t hold down a job and be productive most of the time. But there will be days when he needs a little time away from work. Or maybe he needs a week to care for his mom when she breaks her hip or a few weeks to spend with his new baby. Without the security of knowing he will have a job to go back to, he either risks his paycheck or risks not meeting crucial off-the-job needs. The need to be Here (at home) cannot always come second to the need to be There (at work).
Especially for those on the middle and bottom rungs of the income ladder, these kinds of justifiable absences from work must be paid. Otherwise, it’s a nice idea but not one that is affordable. Two ideas whose time has come are to allow workers to earn paid sick days, short-term leave for the occasional illness of a worker or their children, and paid family and medical leave for at least twelve weeks for the good times, when the family welcomes a new child, and the not-so-good times, when a seriously ill family member needs care. Only about two-thirds of workers have paid sick days, and the overwhelming majority do not have paid family and medical leave. Some employers and some states and cities have taken steps to change this, but we need national coverage that includes all workers, not just some of us—and everyone needs to know that they can use this leave without fear of retribution. Like our nation’s longstanding rules on the minimum wage and workplace safety, paid sick days and paid family leave should be required for all employees and employers, no exceptions.
The second set of ideas covers what happens when we’re at work. Work hours need to fit our lives. Some people don’t get enough hours and cannot earn enough to pay their bills. Others have to cope with too many hours, or too many hours at the wrong times. Schedules are too often tilted toward the minute-by-minute demands of businesses, with little or no appreciation for the needs of workers. To rebalance this relationship, we must address overwork, underwork, and unpredictable schedules when people are There (at work).
Some employers have taken positive steps, offering their employees flexible schedules—be they hours that fit family life, or even telecommuting. The evidence shows that such policies benefit both firms and families, by motivating workers to be at their best at a company that cares about them and their families and by reducing turnover. But it may not be in the short-term interest of some individual firms to adopt such measures, even if doing so is good for the economy overall. That’s where policies to promote flexible schedules that work for both employers and employees come in. We also need to strengthen the protections of the New Deal–era Fair Labor Standards Act by limiting overwork for a larger swath of workers, and putting in place greater scheduling predictability for workers up and down the economic ladder. These steps improve the conditions for employees when they are at work and thus boost the productivity of firms and the overall economy.
Next are solutions to the daily concern of who’s caring for those who need it. Families need high-quality, affordable solutions for caring for children, the elderly, and the sick. One of the toughest choices a family makes is finding the right caregiver for a young or ill family member. We need to ensure affordable, safe, and enriching care for children and elders for every family who needs it. Our future depends on it. Rethinking the 1971 comprehensive child-care legislation would be a good place to start, as would be building on the work in cities and states today that are offering free or low-cost universal access to pre-kindergarten for all three- and four-year-olds. For elder care, we need better options both for keeping seniors at home and for long-term palliative care. Enabling families to provide the best care for their children and elderly relatives delivers intergenerational benefits to both families and society.
Finally, these work-life systems must be Fair. With both men and women in the workforce, at some point most of us need time off for family. But no one should be discriminated against because they need some flexibility to care for their loved ones. And if only some people have access to work-life policies that help them address conflicts between work and family life—and those who do are afraid to use them—then this isn’t a real set of solutions. Solutions must address the challenges up and down the economic spectrum. Some ideas are now being tested in states and localities, such as prohibiting family responsibilities discrimination, in conjunction with existing protections such as the Americans with Disabilities Act; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial, ethnic, religious, and gender discrimination in the workplace; and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
Fairness also means tailoring and adjusting workplace policies to meet the needs of different breadwinners in different professions with different workplace needs. Job quality, incomes, and access to family-friendly workplace options look different depending on where employees work. Work-life policies will not affect everyone the same way. What works for one worker may not work for another. An option to telecommute may not help a working parent whose home office has been turned into a playroom or the receptionists and line workers who must physically be at work. But better scheduling practices may be especially helpful to all these workers. Being Fair to all employees and employers means finding solutions for all families that are uniformly adhered to by everyone.
So we have a set of solutions: Here, There, Care, and Fair. We don’t need one magic fix; we need policies in all four areas. And they need to cover everyone, helping all kinds of families. Paid leave, for short-term and long-term needs and when a new child comes into the family. Schedules that work for families, as well as for their employers, that are predictable and don’t require too many—or too few—hours each week. High-quality, affordable care for children and the aging. This is what’s fair; those who have care responsibilities are not second-class or secondary workers.
Boushey outlines these policies, demonstrates their effects on the overall economy, and argues not only that the U.S. can afford to fix these things, but that it can’t afford not to. In endorsing Finding Time, Larry Summers wrote that “In a rational world its arguments would have an important impact on the future of American economic policy.” With Boushey’s appointment to Clinton’s team, the world may have just gotten a bit more rational.