As public schools around the country struggle to reopen safely during the COVID-19 crisis, and with Congressional pandemic relief stalled, working parents—indeed, all folks struggling to make ends meet while providing care for others—are experiencing unprecedented panic and uncertainty about their ability to keep things going. The “Real Life Horror Stories From the World of Pandemic Motherhood” reported by Law Professor Joan C. Williams and others are filled with frightful details about parents facing repercussions at work because they are also needed at home. Earlier this summer, Florida State University freaked out many of its workers by declaring that FSU would “no longer allow employees to care for children while working remotely” before backtracking to “be clear” its “policy does allow employees to work from home while caring for children” (without stating exactly how both tasks could be done simultaneously). One California mother filed an employment discrimination lawsuit alleging that when she could not guarantee her young children would be silent on remote meeting calls “100 percent of the time,” she was ordered “to take care of your kid situation” and then terminated. Williams describes the predicament of a single mother “whose daughter has a disability that makes her especially vulnerable to Covid . . . [who] was fired because her employer insisted she return to the office, which she couldn’t do without putting her daughter at risk.”
Williams, who directs the Center for WorkLife Law, warns that American households need a replacement for “the patched-together Rube Goldberg machine that just broke” (internal hyperlink omitted). In fact, many families have never had a fully functional work-life system, but instead have grappled with a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting and disjointed partial solutions for meeting work, family, and personal needs.
Even before the pandemic, many workers were precariously balancing long and unpredictable hours, stagnant wages, and unaffordable substitute care for children and elders, alongside the high costs of housing, transportation, and utilities.
Those not legally authorized to work or otherwise disconnected from the labor market fare even worse and are left to fall through large holes in a social safety net that deems anyone unwilling or unable to work as undeserving of basic subsistence-level support. Such a system deprives the non-working poor of human dignity while ensuring that the working poor must accept the worst conditions and lowest wages, even as they raise the next generation of “essential” workers.
The harshest effects of the work-care crisis, as with the burdens of healthcare inequity and targeted policing, are visited on households headed by unmarried Black women and women of color—precisely the populations that have historically been forced to juggle paid work and family care with little or no social support. Single Black mothers have been harshly scapegoated, denigrated, and criminalized as neglectful, lazy, or selfish whether they ultimately choose to work outside the home without socially acceptable forms of childcare or forego paid work to care for their own children in their own homes. With both their labor and care undervalued, Black women and other women of color risk their own economic security as well as that of their children no matter what they do.
It’s been almost 25 years since the Clinton administration, fueled by racialized, gendered stereotypes of single mothers draining the public coffers, “end[ed] welfare as we know it,” conditioning receipt of time-limited cash assistance upon compliance with strict work requirements. Explicitly intended to “end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage,” “Work First” ideology punishes rather than furthers parents’ aspirations (most notably, the choice to invest in their own higher education) for better future outcomes for themselves and their children, leaving those without a working spouse to bare survival in the first available low-wage, dead-end job. Still, for all its punitive features, even mandatory workfare features public funding for childcare and spares single-parent households from lost benefits so long as they can show they lack adequate care for children too young to attend public school. As more and more working parents are realizing during the pandemic, it is one thing to be “permitted” to care for one’s own children at home and another to make progress towards a more secure economic future at the same time.
At least since welfare reform, then, we have coexisted with a particularly monstrous work-life imbalance for low-income parents in which economic security, much less economic mobility for their children, remains forever out of reach. Americans have learned to live with punitive workfare as their only form of safety net assistance (or without it, as is the case for too many poor people ineligible even for subsistence benefits). Far from removing the crisis in care and work from polarized public debate, however, the pandemic has shown all too clearly that workfare ideology will not remain confined to the ever-shrinking welfare context, but has a life of its own. As the Trump administration has moved aggressively to expand work requirements to all forms of publicly funded assistance, many more low-income people are at risk of losing crucial social—life—supports, including health care. At the same time, the Trump administration’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) surpasses even welfare reform in elevating married, high-income, disproportionately white parents over single parents of color by channeling the most generous tax expenditures to reward households with one (male) breadwinner of superior wage-earning potential and one caregiver in the home full-time. Far from restoring balance to all parents to choose how and when to combine care work at home with wage work in the labor market, the TCJA further accelerates the concentration of wealth in the most traditionally patriarchal, high-income households.
Against this lopsided backdrop, at a minimum, Williams urges the next session of Congress to protect workers from adverse employment action based on family care obligations and, further, to provide affirmative support for families in the form of paid family leave “and what many other advanced industrial countries also have: neighborhood-based, nationally financed child care.” Recent presidential candidate and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s “universal child care and early learning program,” embraced by the Democratic National Convention’s platform, promises broad coverage and purports to kill three birds with one stone: “Parents get the . . . freedom to choose the best work and child care situation for themselves. Kids get the high-quality early learning opportunities that put them on track to fulfill their potential. . . . And the economy gets a huge boost.” It’s a beautiful vision, but difficult to achieve when the poorest families cannot truly afford the same freedom or the same choices of how best to balance their needs for both care and income. A “universal” childcare solution for those who choose to work, while doing much to mend the tears in the safety net for working families, also requires a solution for those who choose care—without stigma or shame.
We should not underestimate the enduring power of workfare ideology to divide us against each other in fighting over scraps. For childless adults, the costs of supporting public childcare and school may feel excessive so long as childbearing is cast as an individual choice rather than an investment in society. Even among working parents, those earning above-median incomes lament the difficulty of staying afloat with ever higher expenses and debt. In the years after welfare reform, I encountered resistance from working mothers who resented targeting assistance to the poor when they had done everything right yet felt unrewarded for their own superhuman efforts. I once met with a New York State political lobbyist ostensibly interested in advocating for working families. When I raised the issue of supporting increased childcare subsidies for low- and no-income parents unable to work full-time while attending college, the lobbyist responded, “I’m a professional working mom, and I can barely afford childcare. Why should I subsidize care for someone who isn’t even working a full 40-hour week?” Her personal expression of entitlement anticipated decades of public resistance to sharing pieces of the tiny pie that is our social safety net.
What we need, in addition to the urgent interventions of universal child care or expanded unemployment insurance benefits, is a social safety net free from punitive work requirements that reserve support only for the deserving poor—one that guarantees the economic security for all to put their lives before work.
Proposals for universal basic income, for example, which could be payable to all regardless of family composition or labor market participation, treat every human as deserving of social support so they have real choices. Even smaller-scale proposals targeting families or children, so long as they guarantee support for all without additional conditions, may empower more people rather than stigmatizing those that fail to measure up and treating them as less than human.
Among the thankless tasks we all have in the pandemic are cleaning up the political messes of the past, which have resulted in the untenable crisis facing parents nationwide who care about their own families’ futures and those of their neighbors. We are responsible for the workfare monster we have created, and we must not let it destroy what human compassion and creativity might once again create—a strong safety net deserved by all, regardless of work, and regardless of family status. Such a vision of the future will require more than just cosmetic surgery; it will require courage and a strong stomach in this polarized political climate. It may be monstrous in its own way, perhaps in expense and scale. Much more will still be needed to redress race and gender disparities. But it can keep alive a vision of shared humanity instead of a version we know will be the end of us all.
photo credit: Washington Post