By: Riane Eisler and Valerie Young
Who says partisan politics only results in division, discord, and gridlock? After this week’s media frenzy over whether or not Ann Romney was “working” when she raised five boys, a consensus of sorts has emerged. Both Democrats and Republicans agree unreservedly that childrearing is a very important activity, valuable to the families involved, and essential to our civil society and national economy.
Now that that’s been settled, let’s check the political rhetoric against the policy realities.
The shocking truth is that our nation’s policies lag way behind those of every other developed nation in helping parents care for their children. We’re also way behind in helping families care for their elderly and sick. Despite all the talk of family values, we fail to value the work of care. In fact, the U.S. is the only developed nation on earth that does not guarantee paid sick days or paid parental leave.
Even more shocking is that more than one of every five children in the US lives in poverty and that our infant mortality rate is higher than all other industrialized countries, as well as those with significantly weaker economies, such as Greece, Cuba, and Slovenia. Our maternal mortality rate is also so high that a woman in the US has a greater chance of dying during childbirth or from a pregnancy-related condition than she does in all of Europe, Latvia, Oman, or Belarus. If superpower status were based on the survival of newborns and the women who give birth to them, we simply wouldn’t be one.
Behind these statistics lies enormous suffering that is the direct result of our nation’s failure to invest in caring for our people, starting in early childhood. A huge number of workers, both men and women, are periodically caregivers and care receivers across the lifespan. The workforce is aging, and with smaller and more mobile extended families, family caregivers will be older, fewer, and less able to provide care. The care crisis we face requires a shift in our national priorities. This shift is both possible and affordable, as evidenced by nations such as Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Germany that have highly successful economies.
This takes us to still another reason we need caring policies: purely economic one. What counts the most for success as we shift from a manufacturing to a knowledge/service economy is the development of what economists like to call “high quality human capital.” Other nations are committing a high percentage of their resources to human infrastructure, poised to realize the optimum potential of a creative, adaptable, and educated society. We must align our long-term investments with our stated goals of competing successfully in the global economy.
For businesses, making it possible for workers to tend to a seriously ill spouse or parent, or to bond in the early months with a new baby reduces turnover costs, enhances productivity, and promotes loyalty and commitment. Studies show that the financial gains to businesses and their investors from caring policies at work are tremendous. For example, companies listed on the Working Motherlists of the best companies to work for – that is, companies with more caring policies – have a substantially higher return to investors.
Doing what’s necessary to produce optimally functioning people requires time, energy, and commitment, as Ann Romney brought to media attention. However, most parents don’t share the financial advantage that Ann Romney has. The vast majority of mothers must also work outside their homes while providing most of the caregiving, vainly striving for work-life balance (the life component largely being caring for others).
Government policies such as paid sick leave and paid parental leave are essential, and it’s high time we caught up to other developed nations. Our children, our elderly, and our sick will benefit enormously, and so will the people (still mostly women) who care for them.
But in the end, the major beneficiary will be our nation, because in this rapidly changing technological and economic era, a caring economy is the only road to economic success and security. To date, the US has failed to put its money where its mouth is. Support for family care must become a basic minimum labor standard and human right for the United States to deliver on its promise of the American Dream.
Riane Eisler is president of the Center for Partnership Studies and author of The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future, now in 24 languages, and most recently The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics. For more information, see www.partnershipway.org
Valerie Young is a policy analyst and the Advocacy Coordinator at the National Association of Mothers’ Centers. She blogs about the intersection of motherhood and public policy at Your (Wo)Man in Washington.