Platitudes and the American family

ARTHUR CAPLAN

December 05, 1991|By Arthur Caplan

FEW COUNTRIES can claim politicians who expend more verbiage per minute extolling the glories of the family than ours.

Attend any political rally for any candidate for any public office in any town from St. Paul to St. Petersurg, and you will find yourself adrift in a sea of warm fuzzies about the family that seem to have been lifted verbatim from old "Leave It to Beaver" scripts.

George Bush is especially prone to wax eloquent over the family as the moral linchpin of American society. Why then, it is reasonable to wonder, is the man who would lay claim to being the staunchest friend the American family ever had threatening a veto of the 12-week family-leave policy recently enacted by Congress?

Bush says forcing family leave on companies would hurt our competitive position. A recent study from the non-partisan National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, "Work and Family: Policies for a Changing Workforce," shows that this argument rests on nothing but hot air.

One half of all American workers, according to the study, must care for a child, an elderly parent or another family member. More than a third of all workers have children under the age of 18. Fifty-seven percent of married women who work have a child under the age of 6. Ten percent of American workers must care for elderly parents or relatives.

The only way the majority of American families can make ends meet is if both husband and wife work full time. This means there are fewer and fewer adults around during the day. This means that infants, children, the elderly, the severely disabled and the mentally ill are increasingly at risk if no one is home to watch out for them.

"Work and Family" then goes on to present some of the saddest, most pathetic statistics imaginable about a society whose leader supposedly cares above all else about the dignity of families: The majority of employed women in this country lack paid leave for pregnancy and childbirth. More than a third of all American workers have no paid sick days.

Twelve million children, the overwhelming majority of whom live in families where at least one adult works, have no health insurance. Twelve million! A large number of companies do not offer paid leave or any other sort of leave to care for sick children or elderly family members who have a health emergency.

How do we stack up against other countries with whom we compete in terms of family leave and other policies aimed at strengthening the family? In a word, lousy.

Of 118 nations surveyed in the study, the United States is the only one without legislation guaranteeing family leaves. Germany instituted guaranteed, paid 14-week leaves in 1878. France in 1928. In addition, most countries guarantee short paid leaves "for pressing family reasons." According to the study, the United States trails behind the industrialized world in the availability of not only family leaves, but flex-time schedules, government-sponsored child care programs, percentage of kids with health insurance and home care assistance for the elderly.

Bush says 12-week family leaves will cost businesses too much. But, as the study shows, we all pay when workers cannot get family leave. The lack of family leave and other family-oriented programs in the workplace leads to increased absenteeism, tardiness on the job, job dissatisfaction and high job turnover rates.

The bottom line of the study is that all our industrial competitors have found ways to bridge the gap between the workplace and the home. The evidence on the importance of family leaves is staring George Bush in the face. It is long past time to hold the president accountable for doing more than mouthing platitudes about the family. The contemporary American family cannot work on a diet of platitudes.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota.

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