Policy and the Tensions Between Work and Family

By Colleen Flaherty Manchester, Carrie Oelberger and William P. Jones | January 14, 2017

As scholars of labor relations, public policy, and management, we acknowledge that changes in the workplace have always been intimately connected to developments at home. In this section of the Gender Policy Report, we will track how these inter-connected domains are affected by federal policy that impact Americans and those living in the United States.

We are particularly interested in the ways federal policies shape equality and equity among genders. In this first post we aim to provide context of labor relations and family in the U.S. over recent history. In future posts, we will provide updated research that speaks to policy changes that impact these domains.

Since the 1970s, the average American family has maintained a steady income level only by devoting more hours to paid work.

The decline of unionized manufacturing and construction jobs that allowed many men to support their families on a single income, alongside the growth of low-wage employment in the service, retail, and public sectors, resulted in people working longer hours to meet the rising cost of health and child care, housing, food and other necessities.  For example, whereas in 1970 a majority of American children lived in households with a male breadwinner and a female homemaker, less than twenty percent of children live in similar households today.  In that same period, the percentage of children living in dual-earner and single-parent households has risen from thirty-five to over seventy percent (Hernandez 1993).

Despite the dramatic shift from single-breadwinner to dual-breadwinner families, labor relations and family policies have often not adapted to the reality of those changes and their meaning for workers and families.

For example, in many labor contexts, work is designed around the assumption of a single-breadwinner, which expects that the worker is able to be fully committed to work because there is a spouse who doesn’t engage in paid work outside the home and will take care of all life responsibilities (i.e., caring for children or aging parents, shopping and preparing food, taking care of the home, etc., Acker 1990). This model is “gendered,” in that men have historically been the single-breadwinners while women have most often filled the role of the supporting spouse.

However, with 59% of married women now participating in the workforce (either out of interest or necessity), families need sufficient and quality family leave (for parental bonding time with infants or newly adopted children or to care for aging or sick family members) as well as affordable and high-quality childcare for preschool-aged children while parents are at work.  With few exceptions, federal policies continue to reflect the single-breadwinner model with a lack of paid parental leave and limited childcare support.

Those challenges are more severe for non-white, unmarried, and less educated workers, but they reflect a broad and persistent need for policies aimed at alleviating the growing tension between work and family.

Due to the strong influence of President Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, the Trump administration may be the first to provide paid leave for parents, for which the U.S. has been at the bottom in terms of policy support among OECD countries. However, access to those policies may be limited to women, which would serve to resurrect gender norms on separate spheres for men and women.

Donald Trump ran for election as a champion of “our working-class” and gained many supporters from that demographic group, yet initial analyses indicate that his definition of who falls into “our working class” is segregated by gender. For example, his calls for tax and tariff reform, as well as infrastructure spending, aim to revive employment in manufacturing, transportation, and extractive sectors that have historically employed mostly men.

Meanwhile, his nomination of fast-food restaurant CEO Andy Puzder to head the Department of Labor suggest the administration will be less supportive of recent efforts to improve wages, benefits, and workplace protections for the mostly female workers in service and retail.

Promises to freeze hiring and weaken employment protections for federal employees, and to restore a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, also threaten to undermine improvements in government workplaces that have been important sources of employment and advancement for women.

We will be interested to see how Trump balances these various agendas, as well as those of more traditional conservatives in Congress. This section of the Gender Policy Report aims to monitor these policies as they come into being and to analyze their potential impact for workers and their families.

Policy areas that we anticipate paying close attention to include:


—Colleen Flaherty Manchester, Carrie Oelberger and William P. Jones

–Photo by Stephen Poff

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