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Why we need time to care

The gap in U.S. family policy

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

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The following text is from an August 6, 2005 presentation at the Second National Take Back Your Time Conference in Seattle, Washington.

I'm in town with my husband and children this week, and when my older son heard I wouldn't be joining the family for breakfast this morning, he said: "What kind of group would schedule a mom to speak so early on a Saturday morning? They must think dad is going to take us out for doughnuts."

I mention this not as a criticism, but to draw attention to the often unseen and unacknowledged work of care that makes our daily lives run. As much as my kids, who are now 8 and 12, might like to be set loose to roam the streets of Seattle -- ever since we arrived, they've been determined to track down the former haunts of their grunge rock idols -- it's reassuring to know my husband is keeping an eye on them. By caring for our children, my husband is also caring for me -- in the same way that I often care for him -- by supporting my work, which is the work of social change.

I'm going to tell you why we need time for care and what it will take to get it, but before I launch into an overview of family-friendly public policy and the barriers to enacting it in the United States, I ought to explain that I've come to understand caregiving not only as a core social and economic issue, but also as a deeply ethical practice. Not because caring for others requires exceptional self-sacrifice -- under more equitable conditions, it would not -- but because caregiving is one of the few activities of contemporary life that routinely grounds us in our humanity. When we ask for more time to care, I suspect what we most desire is the temporal freedom to enjoy a richer connection with our loved ones, our communities and our world. I also happen to believe that by making time to care a national priority -- and by assuring that the work of care is more fairly apportioned between men and women, and between more and less economically and socially privileged groups of people -- we open the possibility of creating a more humane and just society, and a more perfect democracy.

In their recent book The Time Divide, sociologists Jerry Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson show that America's time crisis is not simply a product of escalating work hours across the board. In fact, Jacobs and Gerson's comprehensive review of historical data on working hours found the length of the average work week of men and women in the United States has remained relatively stable since 1960. But average hours of weekly work per household -- particularly in households headed by married couples with children -- have skyrocketed in the last three decades. Jacobs and Gerson also found that the "time squeeze" plays out very differently for U.S. workers depending on their education, occupational status and gender. While very educated workers, who are most likely to work as salaried professionals, put in exceptionally long hours, less educated workers -- who are more likely to work in the service sector for hourly wages -- have fewer employer-provided benefits and often have fewer hours of paid work than they need to earn a living. Men invariably spend more time on the job than women, and married fathers work and earn more than other men, while mothers consistently work and earn less than other women. Proponents of the emerging mothers' movement point out that the difference between mothers and fathers work hours and earnings exacerbates gender inequality at home and in the workplace, leaving mothers disproportionately at risk for economic hardship over the life course.

Jacobs and Gerson's observations about the bifurcation of American's working time led them to define the contemporary time problem as the time divide. They argue that the lopsided distribution of working time in the U.S. creates or reinforces a structural divide between work and family, men and women, and parents and non-parents. They also found that for both workers who work too much and those who have too little work to make ends meet, there is a significant gap between the hours Americans would prefer to work and their actual hours of work. Jacobs and Gerson emphasize that individual preferences for longer or shorter work hours have little impact on the way we work: "We cannot assume that workers’ choices are merely a reflection of their own personal preferences," they write. "In a myriad of ways, the world of work is organized and structured by forces far beyond any worker’s control." I'm using Jacobs and Gerson's analysis of the "time divide" as a starting point because I believe their model is especially salient to understanding why we need more and better family policy in the U.S., and what it can -- and cannot -- accomplish.

fixing the time divide

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