The Economic Policy Council of the United Nations Association -- a prestigious group of top management and labor -- has issued an important report calling for wide-ranging public and private sector policy initiatives to help American workers better balance the pressures of work and family life.
The EPC is chaired by Robert O. Anderson, charman of the Atlantic Richfield Co., and Douglas A. Fraser, president emeritus of the International Union-United Auto Workers. The report was issued by its Family Policy Panel, chaired by Alice S. Ilchman, president of Sarah Lawrence College, and John J. Sweeney, international president of the Service Employees International Union.
Members included President Ford and former labor secretary Ray Marshall, union presidents, corporate presidents, professors of law, economics and social policy, and corporate experts in human resources.
The presumption underlying the report is not that it would be nice to help workers do a better job of balancing work and family demands, but that it is sound economic policy to do so because it reduces stress, absenteeism, unemployment and turnover, and increases productivity. Further, the report notes that the tremendous influx of women into the work force, combined with the rise in divorce and single mothers, have resulted in growing numbers of women being pivotal to the support of their families. Yet these mothers face the greatest risks of poverty: the median income for black single mothers, for example, was $8,452 in 1984, compared with $29,612 for two-parent households of all races.
A quarter of all children are being raised in poverty. Many of the policy options recommended are designed to help mothers improve their economic potential.
The report stresses the need for policy makers to recognize the fact that policies designed in the '50s no longer reflect the modern work force. Today, "75 percent of all children live with two parents and in 61 percent of these families both parents are employed. Furthermore . . . over half of all American children will spend some part of their lives in a single-parent household. Most children today have a working mother . . . . Despite these radical changes, we are still confronted with a legacy of private and government policies and practices that are based on the traditional family structure."
The report notes that only 40 percent of American working women are entitled to any maternity or parental leave, and for many, childbirth becomes synonymous with being fired. "Studies have shown that even short employment breaks, especially when not job-protected, often result in a decline in long-run earning potential."
The panel calls for federal legislation guaranteeing temporary disability insurance for all employes. It says all women should be guaranteed a minimum of six to eight weeks' maternity leave, with their jobs fully protected, and some of their salary paid, and all workers should be entitled to unpaid parental leave to adjust to newborns or newly adopted children.
These policies "would be important mechanisms for enabling women to bear children and to remain in the labor force. The resulting increase in their income-earning potential could help many women become more self-supporting."
The panel called for a major commitment to child care by states, the federal government, public schools and the private sector. This includes initiatives to improve the training and compensation of child care providers, better licensing and expansion of dependent-care tax credits to help low-income families. The report notes that Head Start serves only 18 percent of the more than 2 million eligible children. It calls for an expansion of that program, restoration of federal cuts in the Child Care Food Program (which encourages providers to get licensed, because only licensed providers are eligible); expansion of preschool programs and before- and after-school child care within the public schools.
It also calls on employers and unions to become more responsive to child care needs of workers through direct financial assistance or child care services, flexible work schedules, part-time work, and flexible benefit programs.
The report is not a wish list from working mothers. Far from it. It is a hard-nosed analysis of what is needed to improve the productivity and economic well-being of the current work force and what steps can be taken now to ensure the stability of the future work force.
The panel put forth the most convincing argument of all for its recommendations: in the long and the short run they are cost effective.