If economist Milton Friedman were a 30-ish female academic struggling to get tenure, raise a kid, and run a household, he might begin to understand that the free market does not automatically rise to the occasion.
Sometimes it needs a little help in bringing together the demand side -- those who desperately need help in managing a household -- with the supply side -- those who want household jobs.
The thought of a harried Professor Friedman rocking a baby on one knee, mixing ingredients for a Scarsdale poached fish natalia, and worrying over an afternoon lecture on the Federal Reserve system is comforting, but unfortunately he does not have to cope with free-market malfunctions on such a personal level.
The hot social issues of civil rights, women's liberation, and alien workers have come to a head, not in pleadings before the Supreme Court or in congressional committees, but in relations between the middle-class woman and her housekeeper. The most clearheaded, and ultimately the most compassionate way to think about the problem is in economic terms.
For many years it has not been considered polite or sensitive in liberal circles to go throuth "I-can't-do-a-thing-with-my-maid" routine. Some who would like to employ a housekeeper refrain out of belief that people should clean up their own dirt. Others feel vaguely guilty about it.
"That liberal guilt is going to end up ruining our organizing efforts," says Carolyn Reed, the most powerful figure in the 10,000-member Household Technicians of America.
"We want to professionalize household work, get good money for it, and not pretend that it isn't an important job that has to be done."
What Carolyn Reed hates most of all are patronizing terms such as "girl," "just one of the family," "domestic," and "help." HTA (which prefers the term "household technician") endorses the use of a standardized contract calling for a trial employment period, paid vacations, and other benefits. In effect, such formalities bring household work out of feudalism and into the capitalist era.
Many middle-class employers with the need and money to hire housekeepers say they can't find any. Meanwhile, household job-hunters trudge all day to job interviews and talk morbidly about all their rejections.
There is no rational middle-man mechanism to bridge the gap. Instead, private enterprise has produced hundreds of household employment agencies charging high prices and giving no training.
The traditional source of household help -- the black American female -- is drying up. Younger black women, with better educations and greater opportunities than their mothers, increasingly are able to get blue- or white-collar jobs with better salaries. The labor gap has been filled by immigrant women -- also black in many cases, and usually Latin American.
More than just foreign and unable to speak English, such a woman often is making the sudden switch from a pre-industrial agrarian village in Nicaragua. Once she gets past the trauma of a job interview, she is expected to take over. This includes working all the electronic gadgets without breaking them, taking care of the Persian rug (even though she's never seen one before), babying the French furniture, and handling a small child who plays with alarming electronic games that beep all the time.
From an El Salvador woman who works three eight-hour days in three different households, earning at $3 an hour, $72 a week:
"One lady is really down on me. She is always giving me dirty looks. She tells me . . . why didn't I read the directions when I waxed the kitchen floor so it wouldn't turn yellow? I would not tell her I can't read. And then she turns around with a smile and says, did I go to see the play 'Evita?'" It's about Spanish people. I say to myself, 'What a stupid bitch. How could I afford that?'"
"The private agencies are not the people to change things for the better," says Carolyn Reed. "A few years back, I applied for work doing childcare, but emphasized that I had no experience at it. On the telephone I heard the agency manager describing my vast experience with children."
What could help, although it seems almost anachronistic to suggest it these days, would be a simple federal program to give some short-term training and a temporary home base to these new, often confused potential workers. Rather than hassling and detaining aliens who want green cards to work, why not give them green cards and help them get training for decent-paying, necessary jobs?
In the past this country has recognized labor shortages in different areas and made it easy for that sort of laborer to become U.S. citizens and get work. One has only to spend a few hours interviewing exhausted parents trying to juggle jobs, babysitting, cooking, and cleaning to know that if they could find dependable technicians and child-care workers, they would gladly lay out the money.
Such a program would not be expensive. A three- or four-week orientation program would be enough to help new workers get acclimated. The Household Technicians of America could send some of its best hotshot housekeepers to give informal talks about caring for a house, and in apprentice style take trainees to their jobs once or twice. English courses could be part of the training. Continuing guidance and some kind of grievance mechanism open to employers and employes also would be useful.
We must recognize that we have a nationwide shortage of trained professional workers to run households and help care for children. The conservative arguement against setting up federal child-care centers across the country has been that children are better off in a home environment in their early years. If that is the case, then why can't some money be set aside to educate an independent specialized labor force that would help make that possible?
Reed says she would be in favor of some kind of government program to help train household technicians and child-care workers. "It is not just a dirty little job," she says, "that someone does because they can't do anything else. Knowing how to manage a house, talk to an electrician, care for a child, is complicated stuff if it is done well."
Reed plans to push for high-school household management courses so that young people -- white and black, male and female -- can learn some skills that could help them make a good living in this field. Another dream is to set people up working in teams -- moving through apartment complexes together, cleaning, cooking, and caring for children as a group, so that more people could afford it.
One can only hope that Carolyn Reed has a lot of success with her plans. She's the only one around seriously trying to do something to overhaul the American household labor scene.
Her energies now are devoted mainly to experienced older black workers, her major constituency. Meanwhile, the special problems of new foreign workers continue to remain their own. And shorthanded dual-job families spend grueling hours trying to get everything done alone.
Surely the capitalist system ought to be able to bring labor problems to a mutual solution with just a little bit of help.