Suddenly, we’re all talking about families. Particularly
since Gov. Sarah Palin’s entrance into the presidential campaign, the public
conversation has leaped past "family values" and landed squarely on working
mothers, reproductive choices, and teen pregnancy and parenting.
And it’s all fascinating to follow, if at times
disorienting. (Is it seriously former senator Rick Santorum who is lecturing us
that "women should have the right to do, in the workplace, what men do"?).
But something’s missing.
The fact is, responsible people who are ready to become
parents face a brutal economic environment and longstanding workplace,
insurance and government policies that don’t support those who want to build
families. The lack of family leave or flexible schedule policies, unequal pay
for equal work, and inadequate health insurance coverage discourages those who
want to have kids, even when they are emotionally ready for them.
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And god forbid there be any surprises.
Jennifer Flaten was living in Buffalo, Minnesota,
seven years ago when she and her husband decided to have their first child.
They planned costs to be sure that they could support a baby, but it all had to
be reworked when the couple found out at the 16-week ultrasound that they were
"The costs of two little infants were crazy," Flaten said. "I
couldn’t afford to quit work, but yet 90 percent of my salary went to child
care. We dragged on never quite making
Then came a third child two years later.
"Three kids totally drained every remaining amount of money
we had," Flaten said.
The family adapted: Flaten’s husband received a promotion,
they moved to a cheaper house, and Flaten found part-time work as an
administrative assistant that allows her to choose the days that she works
based on what’s needed in her home.
The strain, though, isn’t forgotten.
"People should not have to choose between family life–that
is, not having one–or work," Flaten said.
It’s an unfortunate cycle: if someone wants to have a
family, they need money to support it. That typically means that they have to
work. Workplace policies and government labor policies are hostile to parental
responsibilities. Parents, then, are forced to choose between not
being able to afford the kids they have, or not having the kids they want.
The results are predictable. In an August 2008 analysis of
newly released census data, the National Women’s Law Center
revealed that child poverty rose to 18% last year, from 17.4% in 2006. That
translates into an increase of half a million impoverished children in one
Nikki Maxwell is a 39-year-old mother of three living in North Hills, California.
As an employee of California
she was well-supported when she chose to have children. A human resources staff
member took the time to explain the family and health policies. As a union
member, she received six weeks paid leave. Her co-workers were responsive to the
flexible hours she needed at the office.
By the time her third child was born, though, Maxwell worked
in a new department.
"[In the new department], nobody had children and you were
expected to work weekends and evenings," Maxwell said. "I just couldn’t do that
anymore. It was time to leave."
She left CSU to work as a consultant from home. But her
timing, she said, couldn’t have been worse.
"The economy has tanked and we’ve gone from being fairly
stable and secure as parents to feeling stressed and unsure," she said. "I like
my flexible lifestyle, but I don’t like not have health insurance for my kids."
She added that while she and her husband planned their first
child, the other two were unexpected. "I’m not sure I ever would have had more
children on purpose," Maxwell said. "It’s a big, responsible and scary job to
be a parent these days.
"I would adopt (another child) if I felt I could afford it.
I can’t afford more children at this point."
Amy Minton, a writer in San Antonio, shares this
"Frankly, I’d love to adopt, but the financial and medical
bills for that are way out of our league. Why isn’t it more affordable to
adopt so that middle-class people can do it? That frustrates me," she said.
Becoming a parent in and of itself wasn’t without economic
strain for Minton.
"When I had my baby in 2000, I worked for myself and had a
crappy individual policy. I paid cash to midwives for the birth, and we
negotiated with the hospital on a payment plan. I went back to work the
day after I gave birth," she said.
"Now, in 2008, with an employer that offers family leave and
a crappy health care plan I can’t afford–so I still have the same individual
insurance plan–I wouldn’t think of having a baby," Minton said. "I’ve seen too
many new moms here at work get caught in the system they thought would take
care of them. Then they get passed over for promotions because their focus is
Health Insurance Out of Reach
Kevin Sullivan is an insurance broker from San Francisco who acknowledges a broader health
insurance strategy that designs policies to discourage potential
"Even an inquiry for adopting a
child, or, too many visits to the OB-GYN, could result in a decline for health
insurance," Sullivan said. "In most states, the (insurance) application
(asks) … ‘Are you currently pregnant?’ ‘Are you seeking to adopt a
child?’ ‘What was the reason for your last OB-GYN visit?’" Sullivan said.
"Any indication regarding an upcoming child and you risk decline."
individual insurance plans consider pregnancy is a pre-existing condition,
whether or not you were aware of it, and it becomes grounds for the denial or
exclusion of coverage. Under a federal law known as HIPAA, group plans that
offer maternity coverage are barred from considering pregnancy a pre-existing
condition. Medicaid does accept women who are already pregnant.
The NWLC reports that 17.1 million women were uninsured in
Why the rejections? Sullivan said that an insurance company
looking to minimize risk doesn’t consider it a stable investment to issue a
policy to a potential parent.
"They could be
adopting an HIV-positive, paraplegic with cancer from a third world country,"
Sullivan said. "Insurance companies don’t like unknowns."
Both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain are campaigning
on health care reform. Obama proposes "quality, affordable and portable
coverage" available for purchase by all individuals and businesses. It would
have guaranteed eligibility–no one would be turned away for illnesses or
pre-existing conditions–and would include mandatory coverage for children.
McCain proposes to reform the tax code to offer more health insurance choices,
beyond employer-based coverage. Families and individuals would receive a
refundable tax credit to help offset the cost of insurance. McCain says that he
will work with governors to find solutions so that those with pre-existing
conditions will find easy access to care.
With economic and workplace policies at
odds with family planning, it’s enough to make many new parents feel relieved
if they got by.
Paul Schillio, also of St. Joseph,
is a new father who’s grateful that he and his wife got paid leave after their
thankful that both (my wife and I) are in jobs that allow [financial questions]
to not be an issue for us," Schillio said. "Our decision came from our desire
to have a family — our life was missing something bigger and it almost felt like
we were in a rut, living only for ourselves. But that is our emotional
We might hope that all potential parents
are able to plan and grow their families based on the "emotional reason,"
rather than workplace, insurance and government policies that, for all the
"family values" rhetoric their sponsors might espouse, usually don’t offer what
Sen. Barack Obama brought equal pay for equal work into the
campaign, both in his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic convention
and in an ad he’s airing in Virginia.
(Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, is opposed to equal pay for equal work, on the
grounds that it’s too burdensome for businesses and that women need more
education and training to succeed in the workplace.) NWLC reports that women
earned 78 percent of what men earned for comparable work in 2008.
It seems so intuitive that it’s laughable, but certainly an
equal pay policy that from the top level will better provide parents with the
financial resources they need to raise children well.
The Family Medical Leave Act provides for up to twelve weeks
of unpaid maternity and paternity leave, but for many new parents, three months
without a paycheck is untenable. Some workplaces fill the gap by keeping
employees on the payroll when they’re caring for their newborn. Liam Sullivan of Cambridge, Massachusetts,
found that the strong union for Harvard University employees helped him get
health and family benefits that might’ve been inaccessible otherwise.
"Even as the father I was able to take off 20 days to
spend with my son when he was a newborn," Sullivan said. "The union also
has a scholarship fund to help pay for child care so my wife and I can work
full-time. I don’t know where I would be without these benefits."
Other parents struggle of the eligibility
requirements of the FMLA. You must have been employed at least 12 months or
worked more than 1,250 hours with an employer of at least 50 employees in order
to qualify for leave. When Ben Rimes, of St. Joseph, Michigan, and his wife
were surprised by their first daughter, neither parent had worked at his or her
job long enough to qualify for FMLA maternity or paternity leave.
The next set of elected officials has the opportunity to take
the lead on updating the FMLA so that it not only suits the real-life
circumstances of parents, but it finally parallels the national policies of
Talk of expanding FMLA has reached Washington. Obama states
that he will expand the act by covering businesses with 25 or more employees
and, beyond its current limited uses, allowing workers to take leave for elder
care, participation in their children’s academic activities, home care, and for
survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Obama also proposes a strategy that will
urge states to adopt paid-leave policies.
McCain voted for the FMLA in 1993, while also voting to
suspend the act unless the federal government certified that compliance wouldn’t
increase business expenses, or alternatively provided financial assistance to
businesses to cover related costs. McCain also co-sponsored the Family Friendly
Workplace Act, which aimed to allow employers to provide flexible work
schedules for employees to balance their work and family lives. It permitted
employees to take compensatory time-off (as opposed to paid overtime) and to
work more than 40 hours in one week and proportionally less in another week.
Workplaces can make significant strides
in how welcoming they are to new parents. Flexible work schedules are particularly
craved by parents. When technology enables us to accomplish so much outside of
the office walls, it’s surprising that more employers aren’t readily adapting.
Says Jennifer Flaten: "Allowing flexible
hours and reasonable time off is important. My husband worked for a large
retail company and you couldn’t call in sick without losing a point. Lose too
many points and you are fired. You had to come in if your kid was sick to
explain to your manager — or lie — and hope to be sent home in order not to lose a
Nikki Maxwell wants to see clear policies
about pumping and breastfeeding in the workplace, as well as breaks for
employees to either be with their newborn or to pump.
"I hear a lot of stories through Le Leche
League about moms who are pumping in a bathroom stall at work and crying and feeling
horrible," Maxwell said.
"That type of environment makes
unhappy employees." she said. "[I want to see] companies that really do
appreciate families instead of just paying lip service to them." This election year, our candidates should pay
families more than lip service, too.