Heather Boushey is my new hero.
Boushey is Executive Director and Chief Economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and author of Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict.
Most of us understand that there is value to having a stay-at-home parent and we are in dire need of universal family leave in this country. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty economic details of making that a reality, we lose our bluster just a bit.
Which is where Boushey comes in.
In the plain black-and-white, no-nonsense terms one might expect from a Chief Economist, Boushey’s book outlines the facts: that our current economy was built on the premise that women stay home while men bring home the bacon. But that’s just not the way the world works anymore, so it’s time to do something about it. And not only that, but ensuring that men and women have access to the resources they need to care for family members — be those aging parents or newborn babies — benefits businesses and the economy.
“In a lot of rooms, we think that these policies addressing work-life conflict are just ‘for the ladies’ or just for mommies,” Boushey explains. “But in fact, when you actually look at it, these are the kinds of policies that make it possible for people, both men and women and both people with children and those caring for elders, both find and hold down a job and be a productive member of the labor market, knowing that their care challenges are being addressed.”
Boushey gets it, and her frank approach to the realities of supporting work-life policies that allows employees to, you know, work and live, feels like a breath of fresh air in a current system that feels impossible to navigate. Here are just a few of the important points you’ll find from her:
1. Women are working because they have to.
In her book, Boushey asserts that it’s time to move past the cutesy idea that women working is a “choice.” The reality is that these days, women working isn’t a romanticized choice that some mothers get to make to have find fulfillment. The reality is that women work because they have to. Even many of us self-proclaimed “stay-at-home moms” aren’t often solely stay-at-home moms. Many of us still have to contribute financially to our families in some capacity. Essential oils, I’m looking at you.
“It’s a changing family structure and most women can expect to support themselves at some point; it’s also about their own economic security,” says Boushey. Unfortunately for men, due to a reduction in available jobs and other economic factors, there just isn’t as much potential for men to make the same income they used to and support a family. And for two-parent families, women are the ones making up that difference or leading the family all together.
2. Our economy was built on stay-at-home wives.
This is key: we need to realize that everything we know about how we work and how businesses run are based on labor polices that were set in the 1930s. Labor policies set in stone back then were based off of what families at that time needed, and at that time, families consisted of: dads who worked and moms who stayed home.
“This was the structure of the family that these policies supported,” Boushey says. “We weren’t living in the same world that we are now. This set of policies was created in a different era and we need to go back in and add social insurance for parental leave and elder care and rethink the labor standards. It doesn’t cover the need for predictably and flexibility — these just weren’t issues back then.”
So today, it’s a pretty simple solution. Just like we did back then, let’s take a look at what our families look like now, determine what they need, and then set our social and labor policies accordingly.
3. We haven’t decided as a society if we believe child care is a right or a last resort.
During World War II, when women working was part of the war effort, the Lanham Act set up safe and affordable child-care centers all across the nation. Because women working was helping, child care wasn’t considered a big deal.
So for all the politicians that say enacting child-care centers would be too costly or time-consuming, we know it’s simply not true. It’s been done once, and it can easily be done again. The real dilemma, Boushey points out, is that it hasn’t happened because as a society, we haven’t come to a conclusion if safe, quality, affordable child care is a universal right — or a last resort when the real, preferred option would be a parent at home.
4. Work-life policies are help-outs, not hand-outs.
When it comes to policies that support family life, such as paid maternity leave or flex time, we tend to think of them as privileges or perks instead of necessary rights for anyone who will be part of our economy, and that’s the wrong way to think of it, Boushey insists.
“The biggest misconception [of all] is that people can deal with this on their own,” says Boushey. “Nobody chooses to take a week off of work to care for their parent. And we were all babies once. And in a world where caregivers are also workers, that shouldn’t be a choice. Everybody needs care and workers all need care to provide that care. Very few people have access to the work-life resources that they need.”
She also points out that some of the newer proposals for work-life policies that would let workers take paid time off aren’t just about new babies — they are also about caring for a sick or elderly family member and also for your own illness. “There are very few people in this life who will never have anyone near them who will need care at some time,” Boushey notes. “The focus on parental care is super important, but it’s not just about parents. It’s about caring for people when they need care — that happens for everybody.”
5. Ignoring work-family conflicts hurts the economy.
All of these are about labor supply and economic demand, Boushey explains, meaning that workers can hold down jobs that will affect their budget. And if people aren’t able to access the workforce because of family care issues, then businesses are limited to what talent they have access to. “If we’re not addressing these human concerns, then businesses don’t have access to the best workers,” she points out. “They really are front and center to what makes the economy hum.”
6. Paid leave is something that needs to happen right now.
For families, there is no more important issue than care, whether that be child care, elder care, or care for an illness. And complicating care is the fact that navigating to find safe and affordable care is time consuming, expensive, and difficult to manage alone.
Boushey is insistent that we’ve given businesses enough time to change policies on their own, and it’s time to take action on a federal level.
What Boushey is currently advocating for is the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would establish a national paid leave system for all workers who pay Social Security taxes to access, when they need to take time off work for themselves or a family member. She explains that the FAMILY Act, or policies like it, will not only give all employees access for leave when they need it, but will also benefit a future workforce. If paid leave is available, dads are more likely to take it, which helps children grow up healthier and become productive members of society, too.
“These are issues that aren’t just about women — they are about families,” Boushey concludes. “Men, women, children, and elderly. That’s something new, that’s a new turn of events and we need to start taking them more seriously.”