`Microwave America' needs much support

July 01, 2001|By David M. Anderson

WASHINGTON - Those above-ground blue pools in the backyards of those three-bedroom ranchers in Dearborn, Mich., and Akron, Ohio, symbolized success and stability for working American families in the 1950s. This was Blue Pool America.

Men held jobs in the automobile plants, women were full-time homemakers. There were Sunday family barbecues, and job security was assured for virtually all employees who showed loyalty to their companies. Kids did their homework upstairs, and no part of their anatomy - ear, nose, or otherwise - was pierced. The blue pool was proof that life was good in America whether you had a college education or not.

Life in the 1980s and the 1990s was symbolized by the microwave oven -life for single workers and life, especially, for two-paycheck families. The microwave oven made it easier to get meals cooked fast and to coordinate eating schedules.

Gender roles were in flux. Parents were stressed. The speeding up of life in America we associate now with the computer mouse is actually piggy-backed on the acceleration of life we used to associate with getting breakfast and dinner cooked for everyone.

In Microwave America, the concept of the traditional job vanished. Career moves and mobility were the norm in the work world. Long-term planning for education for children and retirement for parents became causes of anxiety and concern.

Management also decentralized, which was a code word for downsizing in many firms. In others, hardened hierarchies were flattened. And while power was not exactly equalized, knowledge-workers had a greater say in how things were done.

Microwave America did bring certain advantages - expanded opportunities for women, African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities. The American dream became a reality for millions of Americans.

Blue Pool America was as much about civil and gender inequities and social rigidity as it was about family stability and economic security.

The stability concealed many injustices. As our state and national politicians wrestle with Social Security and Medicare reform, environmental and energy policy, and a host of issues about communication policy and the Internet, we must not forget the unresolved problems of Microwave America.

The challenge of balancing work and family responsibilities for working parents, most especially for working mothers who bear a disproportionate share of housework and child care responsibilities, remains the most striking unresolved societal problem.

We still need a paid parental leave policy. The vast majority of American families - not just the poorest families - still need substantial support with child-care expenses. And we still need a tax credit policy for stay-at-home parents, too.

The persistent problem of incivility and violence in our schools is related to the unresolved problem of balancing work and family. Indeed, we really have a work-family-school balancing problem that must be addressed on multiple fronts.

Politically, the Democrats often speak as if they are the party that addresses Microwave America and its realities. And some Democrats do. But most are afraid to really address the problems because they think the public will reject their solutions (like paid parental leave).

New Democrats have many sensible ideas to carve out a reasonable centrist point of view, such as fiscally responsible budgets that reduce the deficit. But one always feels that there is something missing.

President Bush and the Republicans don't even pretend to address the problems. They see history marching from big government and a permissive culture to small government and a controlled culture. Their analysis doesn't get into the tensions of daily life for working Americans, especially for working women. Their speeches rarely address the details of the problems.

They wanted a big tax cut because their analysis of core American problems revealed that if you give people back some of the money they pay in taxes then they will be able to take care of their problems. In their view, it's that simple. And they won the first round.

We can never return to Blue Pool America, even though some Republicans think that we can and should. But we should not try, even though there are some values and virtues from the Blue Pool era that we certainly do need to recover. Hard work, honesty, civility, respect for your neighbors - these are all good things and we need them now, too.

It's time for both political parties to confront the challenges from Microwave America.

Ironically, we may be able to preserve some of the strengths of Blue Pool America if we can fully address the problems of Microwave America.

David M. Anderson, a political theorist, is associate research professor at the George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.

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