If there is anything that the recent political sturm und drang about family separation at the border has emphasized, it is the undeniable sanctity of the family—at least in the political imaginary. The idea that the state might separate children from their parents for a misdemeanor border crossing has caused outrage because it is outrageous; it cuts at the fundamental understanding of what we instinctively know about the value of the parent-child relationship and the necessity of the family bond for human flourishing.
The dramatic response from activists, politicians, and the populace at large reflects the concern that is fundamental to our human nature and observable in social science: children need their parents to be present in their lives to nurture, support, and (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) nourish them.
The political crisis at the border was occasioned by a quick and extreme change in policy and thus provoked an appropriately loud outcry. But less interest is raised when the bond between children and their parents is eroded in more subtle ways—all the more so when other bonds (such as caring for sick relatives) are involved. The argument of the Center for Public Justice’s new report Time to Flourish: Protecting Families’ Time For Work and Care (part of their Families Valued initiative) is just this: that ever since the Industrial Revolution, our culture of work has steadily and quietly been making it harder and harder for families to care for one another and that we cannot expect families to flourish unless there is adequate time for them to do so, together. The report is fundamentally focused on the policy of paid family leave, but its authors (Christianity Today’s Katelyn Beaty and the Center for Public Justice’s Rachel Anderson) are careful to set this issue in a broader context and discuss its importance for all different classes of parents.
First, Beaty and Anderson describe a number of individual stories of families that benefited from paid leave after their children were born—or struggled when they didn’t. The story of a mother who was told that she would be able to keep her job after having a baby as long as she came back within a month–a month!–of giving birth was particularly compelling. When I worked as a family doctor in the US, I heard stories like hers over and over and was constantly discouraged by the relentless need women felt to sacrifice precious time with their babies (or go back to work when they were still physically recovering from childbirth) in order to pay for basic necessities.
Next, the report describes the historical context in which the increasing demands that work makes of family time, starting from the Industrial Revolution to recent increases in shift work for low-wage workers. They emphasize that the problems attendant to mothers working outside the home has long been an issue for African-Americans and immigrant families, who often had no other choice.
However, in recent years single parenthood has risen dramatically and more women than men are finding work; this has brought the tensions to a much larger portion of the population. This section finishes out with a discouraging look at contemporary statistics: one survey found that one-third of Americans making $30,000 or less said that they couldn’t take time off when they needed to care for family members in the past two years, only 15 percent of the American workforce has access to a paid family leave policy, and one-fifth of mothers only take off a few days or weeks after having a baby.
In the last two sections, the authors explore the theological and Biblical meanings of family, work, and rest before turning to the necessity of orienting workplaces and the state to these goods. They focus on the example of HOPE International, a US-based Christian microfinance organization that goes so far as to discourage emailing at night or on Sundays except during emergencies. The Family Medical Leave Act is also discussed as a helpful but ultimately insufficient protection for families (as up to half of young working mothers don’t qualify for it and it has no provisions for pay).
Finally, the report calls for lawmakers to develop policies for state-sponsored paid family leave. An appendix spells out some principles but is short on particular details; some of the principles include sufficient time off and the wages replaced, higher wage replacements for low-income families, and a balance between paid leave for mothers and fathers. However, no particular targets are set and the final point, “Stewarding resources well”, is quite vague.
Overall, Time to Flourish advances its argument well and is a worthwhile contribution to the discussion about economies and the family. Like the rest of what the Center for Public Justice produces, there’s no browbeating, shifty rhetoric, or Biblical prooftexting. It focuses narrowly on advocacy for paid family leave—undoubtedly trying to capitalize on the current political push for the same from within the current Presidential administration.
The report is wholly accessible and downright inoffensive to just about any reader, which is a strength. However, in hesitating to tread on any culture-war issues, the authors seem to shy away from some worthwhile historical context. Why has the gender composition of the American workforce changed so much in recent decades, and why are more mothers working? Why are there fewer jobs accessible to the less educated that could support a family on one income? How have systems of paid leave developed or failed to develop in America, as opposed to other countries?
Understanding these questions would also be helpful in setting up another part of the report that feels insufficient: details for a paid family leave proposal. While a full discussion of costs and specifications would not be suitable for this proposal’s aim, it’s hard to know from this report what sort of “resources” need to be “stewarded”. At the very least, a rough cost estimate for a national 12-week program and a brief discussion of funding via payroll taxes or other public budget appropriations (and at least a word or two about the proposal for funding paid family leave through Social Security floating around) would help the reader to better understand what’s at stake and what sort of political hurdles might exist to implementing paid family leave.
There are many, many different rabbit trails that one could go down on the question of how the state creates conditions under which families can flourish. In the past decade, Americans have had national debates about tax credits for children, gay marriage, access to contraception, and Medicaid expansion — just to name a few — but paid family leave hasn’t gotten much attention on the national stage. This is unfortunate, because while the other issues that occupy our political consciousness are often important, the lack of paid family leave continually burdens the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of mothers who give birth every year without it.
Time to Flourish appeals to the created order with very broad strokes, opening up many more avenues for exploration. Arguments for paid family leave dovetail quite nicely with those for a child allowance, the family wage, or other distributist policies—and if we want to have a humane economy that meaningfully supports family flourishing, we’re going to need a lot more than paid family leave. However, paid family leave is both in reach politically and it is difficult to imagine any humane political future without it (since most people who work will need to take time off at some point to care for their parents, children, or other relatives—even if they never give birth).
There are many different ways that families ought to be supported, but few would benefit from simple and direct policy interventions like paid family leave. The Center for Public Justice has done us a great service by making the case for paid family leave, and while a few more details would be helpful in advancing the argument, there is plenty in the report worth taking to our Christian advocacy organizations and elected officials. If we want to see families thrive, we must ensure that we pay for the time for them to be together.