11/20/2006 11:28 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Failure to Thrive

I must to confess, I've grown accustomed to speaking about how harmful the neoconservative attack on social spending is for women and working families -- as Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute points out, the call for an "ownership society" is just another way of saying "You're On Your Own." So when I was preparing to give this talk, the election results kind of took the wind out of my sails. Suddenly, there are leaders in our state and national legislature who are willing to talk about how we're falling short on meeting the basic needs of working families -- and some are even prepared to do something about it.

This month's election was an unmistakable signal that the voters across America, and especially in New Hampshire, are ready for a new direction in government. But let's be clear: the welfare of women and working families really isn't at the top of the agenda. And if we want to put key family and economic justice issues on the political map for 2008, we've got a lot of educating and organizing to do. The good news is that it may finally be possible to get lawmakers to comprehend the urgency of these issues.

I often talk and write about care and social policy. But given the dramatic shift of possibilities we've seen in the last two weeks, this seems like the perfect time to talk about care and democracy. In the anthology Unfinished Work: Building Equality and Democracy in an Era of Working Families, Dr. Jody Heymann points out that in order to survive in the long run, societies have to accomplish four essential tasks: completing productive work; raising subsequent generations well; preventing and addressing threats; and responding effectively to change. Like all other societies, she writes, "Democracies must accomplish these same four tasks, but they face an additional challenge: to become fully democratic, they must ensure all citizens have equal opportunity for civic and political participation." Heymann adds that because children's ability to fulfill their potential determines the quality of life in a democracy, "children in a democracy are uniquely seen as a public good. Democracies, therefore, have a particular incentive to invest in the quality of care, education and rearing children receive."

In our society, I think we understand intuitively that care matters, and that the quality of care people receive is important. We have some rather strange ideas about who needs and deserves care, however. The theories of liberal individualism that inform our collective understanding of how people ought to behave in economically competitive societies really don't take into account that individuals who appear outwardly autonomous actually live their entire lives in a web of relationships and are both givers and receivers of others' care. But our most outlandish misconception, as far as I'm concerned, is the perception that caregiving "just happens."

Perhaps because caregiving and the need for care are so universal, and because caregiving is so necessary to full human functioning and the sustainability of societies, we've come to think about caregiving the same way we think about the air we breathe -- we can't see it, and we don't really think about it, even though we're utterly dependent on it. And when something interrupts the supply, we're in big trouble.

Of course, caregiving doesn't "just happen." People provide it, and women provide far more than anyone else, whether care is delivered in the form of unpaid family work or through the market. And I hope everyone knows by now that rather than springing from some biologically-determined drive that only women and girls possess, caregiving is a learned, intentional and consensual activity -- just like all other kinds of necessary human work. In fact, the best kind of care -- that is, the kind of care that adequately meets the needs of the person who is cared for as well as the needs of the care provider -- requires a substantial investment of economic and human resources, and a considerable investment of time. And that doesn't even factor in all the healthy human emotions like empathy, love, compassion and connection that often arise from giving and receiving care. Caregiving doesn't "just happen" -- not by a long shot.

When we talk about the problems facing working families today, we're talking about a few different things that relate to the way we've traditionally viewed and organized caregiving in our society. First of all, we're talking about families' ability to obtain the time, resources, services, support and money they need to take care of each other well, which is getting harder for all families in the U.S. and has become impossible for many. We're also talking about the persistence of gender inequality, particularly women's disproportionate contribution to unpaid caregiving and its impact on their work opportunities and economic security. We're talking about outdated systems -- such as the organization of workplaces -- that are out of synch with the realities of twenty-first century life, including the reality that women's paid labor and men's caregiving are absolutely essential to health of our families, our communities and the economy. And finally, we're talking about how growing income inequality, coupled with a longstanding pattern of insufficient social investment in the health and welfare of American workers and families, has created a national crisis.

But what we're really talking about when we talk about these various components of the work and family crisis in the U.S. is the failure of our society to respond effectively to social and structural changes set in motion by the industrial revolution and the transition to a market-based economy. I realize it's much more fashionable to blame feminism for putting America's families in a bind, but the social upheaval that created the care crisis predates Betty Friedan by at least 150 years.

When young children are exposed to constant, low-level stress or neglect, they are vulnerable to a syndrome known as "failure to thrive." Although they are generally healthy, these kids don't grow very well and lag behind their peers in reaching important developmental benchmarks. Some experts believe that early failure to thrive has a subtle and significant effect on children's long-term outcomes, even when the conditions causing it are identified and corrected. Let me suggests that the same thing can happen to societies: they may look outwardly healthy and prosperous, but when most members of a society are subjected to constant low-level stress and neglect, the society will fail to thrive. I suspect this is particularly true for democracies, and I believe we are seeing the effects of neglecting our commitment to equal opportunity and promoting the general welfare in America today. And families are paying the price.

I want to return to what Jody Heymann has to say about this, because her summary is so succinct. "Creating a successful and lasting democracy is as much an evolutionary process and a revolutionary one," she writes:

It took the United States nearly two centuries before all citizens -- irrespective of their race, gender and wealth -- even had equal rights to vote and work. ...If the United States is to continue to evolve and succeed as a democracy, it needs to address the essential tasks of completing work and rearing the next generation while increasing equality of opportunity -- not increasing disparities. As a country, we will need to find a way to manufacture goods, provide services, operate buses and trains, teach teenagers, and raise children without relying on gender inequality. Moreover, we will need to accomplish these tasks in a way that gives low-income families the same opportunity as high-income families at succeeding in the workplace and successfully raising healthy children.

I was quoting Dr. Heymann's observations about care and democracy at a workshop last year, and one of the participants remarked, "But that's not the American Way." By which I guess he meant the American Way is to presume that way we're doing things now is the best way, and if people are at risk or in pain it's because they aren't willing to work hard or made poor life choices. (I don't think he meant the American Way has generally favored the concentration of white, male power and the exploitation of marginalized populations, but I suppose that's another way to look at it.) In any case, my response was, the American Way changes. Indeed, the American Way must change, and keep changing, if our maturing democracy is ever going to thrive. And we need to act now, before irreversible damage is done.

America's voters made the call: it's time for a new direction. It's time for our elected leaders to act responsibly and take steps to close the critical gaps in family, health care and labor policy that are holding America back from fulfilling its potential. Caring for about others is fundamental to the survival of our democracy -- and it doesn't "just happen."

Adapted from a presentation given at an event sponsored by the New Hampshire Women's Lobby in Concord, NH on November 16, 2006.

Editor, The Mothers Movement Online