Leaders and candidates from different political parties in the U.S. differ sharply in many ways, but on one matter, they seem united. Just about all of them claim to care about “working families.”
I have a problem with that. Actually, several problems.
I. The Language of Exclusion: If Candidates Want Single People and People with No Kids to Vote for Them, Then Maybe They Should Speak to Them
In case there is anyone who has not heard people in politics profess their concern for “working families,” let me start with the evidence. Here are some examples of “working families” talk. I’ve added the emphasis on the key words and phrases.
On the White House website, an article about tax cuts says, “In addition to relief for working families, tax reform is essential to restoring America’s economic dominance.”
Leader Mitch McConnell
In remarks on the Senate floor, Leader McConnell said that Republicans offer “more prosperity, more opportunity, more raises and bonuses for working families.”
Senator Bernie Sanders
Senator Elizabeth Warren
In a January 14, 2019 tweet, Senator Warren said: “24 days into the #TrumpShutdown and over 800,000 federal employees have already missed 1 paycheck. How many more before Republicans stop crushing working families and re-open the government? Time to end this.”
Senator Kamala Harris
In a March 9, 2019 tweet, Senator Harris said: “Reminder that the GOP tax law of 2017 is overwhelmingly benefiting the top 1% at the expense of middle class & working families. If we really want to help working families, lets put more money in their pockets. My LIFT Act would do just that.”
Governor Jay Inslee
In a February 28, 2019 tweet, Governor Inslee said: “I was so inspired tonight at the @SEIU1199NW Multi-Employer Training Fund’s 10th anniversary. When employers work with unions to lift the bar for training, wages, safety and professional development, they improve the lives of all working families in WA state.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi
In a January 9, 2019 tweet, Speaker Pelosi said: “House Democrats just voted to ensure that this irresponsible #TrumpShutdown doesn’t block hardworking families from receiving their tax refunds in full & on time. The @SenateGOP must pass this legislation or be fully complicit in the cruelty of this shutdown.”
Working Families (political party)
There is even a political party called Working Families. They describe themselves as “the progressive party, fighting to build an America that works for everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected.”
Have you already figured out what is wrong with the phrase “working families”? I have three problems with it. Let me know if I’ve missed any.
First, the term is ridiculous. Employers do not hire families; they hire workers. Many family members cannot legally be hired, and they would do an awful job if they were hired. Two-year-old’s, for example, are notoriously terrible employees.
Second, and most importantly, the language of “working families” excludes far too many people who do not deserve to be treated as though they do not exist or are of no significance. The term “working families” excludes most of the 35.7 million people who live alone. If you think that married couples without kids don’t count as families, then “working families” excludes another 28.1 million households (56.2 million people), plus all of the unmarried couples without children. Untold numbers of chosen families that do not include kids are excluded, too.
There’s something that our political leaders should keep in mind: All of these people who are marginalized and excluded by the language of “working families” are potential voters. Maybe they will be more inclined to take seriously those candidates and representatives who acknowledge their existence.
Changing the language is straightforward. For example, instead of saying, “When employers work with unions to lift the bar for training, wages, safety and professional development, they improve the lives of all working families in WA state,” Governor Inslee could have said, “When employers work with unions to lift the bar for training, wages, safety and professional development, they improve the lives of all workers in WA state.” Senator Kamala Harris did not have to say, “If we really want to help working families, lets put more money in their pockets.” She could have instead said, “If we really want to help American workers, let’s put more money in their pockets.”
The term “working families” seems especially misplaced when used by the Working Families party, because they fashion themselves as “the progressive party, fighting to build an America that works for everyone.” But the language of “working families” does not include everyone. It probably excludes more than 100 million American workers.
My third and final objection to the language of “working families” is this. Even apart from issues of the exclusion of solo single people or couples or families who do not have children, the term “working families” makes me suspicious. I worry that it is a way of valorizing some families (the ones who work) and shaming others (the ones who don’t). People can be out of the workforce for a whole host of perfectly legitimate reasons. They may be disabled or seriously ill. They may be making every effort to find a job but not (yet) succeeding. They may be retired. Why are those people less worthy of the caring and concern of our political leaders? Why should they be excluded from our laws and policies?
The phrase “working families” smacks of the “family values” crowd, the ideologues who value only those people who lead their adult lives in the prescribed ways – get married (and it had better be a “1 man + 1 woman” marriage), then have kids (not before, or you are violating the “success sequence,” and therefore, they insist, you and your kids will be doomed to failure), then stay married, then have grandkids. But the people and organizations that use the language of “working families” are not just from one end of the political spectrum. Even self-proclaimed progressives are doing
II. Surprise! Adults Living with Children Vote Less Often than Adults Not Living with Children
If, by using the term “working families,” our political leaders were signaling their special concern for people who are married over those who are not married, they could perhaps point to differential rates of voting to justify it (though I think there is no justification for ignoring any potential voter). Married people do typically vote at higher rates than people who are not married. However, the “families” part of the term seems instead to underscore the “for the children” mantra. In that regard, there is a real irony to that focus. As Nicholas Wolfinger and Raymond Wolfinger showed in their analyses of the data from the 2000 Presidential election, people who have children under the age of 18 in their households are less likely to vote than people who do not have young children in their homes.
% of people who voted, 2000 Presidential election
Married with children, 70%
Married with no children, 78%
Widowed with children, 62%
Widowed with no children, 66%
Divorced with children, 56%
Divorced with no children, 61%
Separated with children, 45%
Separated with no children, 56%
Never married with children, 44%
Never married with no children, 52%
People of different marital and parental statuses differ in many ways other than whether they are married or parents. Some of those ways are relevant to voting and may help explain the different rates of voting. For example, older people consistently vote at higher rates than younger people. People who have never been married tend to be younger than married people, so maybe their lower rates of voting can be explained in part by their younger ages. Wolfinger and Wolfinger conducted analyses that controlled for age, mobility, education, sex, employment, income and race. (That means that they compared people of different marital and parental statuses who were similar in those ways – for example, they compared married and never-married people of the same age.)
In the analyses that controlled for all those factors, the rates of voting among lifelong single people went way up, to 68%. The rate of voting was the same, 68%, for the never-married people who did and did not have kids. The currently married people still had higher rates of voting than the never-married (about 73.5%), but not by much. The married people with kids had lower rates of voting than the married couples with no kids, but only by 1%, 73% for married with children, compared to 74% for married without children. The separated people also continued to vote at lower rates if they had children, 60%, than if they had no children under 18 in their homes, 64%. The results for parental status flipped for both divorced and widowed people, though the category of widowed people with children under 18 living with them is small. For divorced people, rates of voting were 65% and 62% for those with and without kids, and for the widowed, the comparable percentages were 67 and 61.
III. Policies Matter More than Language, But Single People and People without Kids Are Sometimes Shortchanged There, Too
More important than the ways our candidates and leaders talk about the people they supposedly serve are the policies they advocate and implement. I’ve discussed this several times before, so I will not go into detail again, except to note that so far this election season, I’m not seeing proposals that include people who have previously been excluded from benefits, protections, or coverage. (Please tell me if you know of any.)
For example, in an October 16, 2018 tweet, Senator Kristen Gillibrand said, “Whether it’s caring for a newborn child or a sick parent or spouse, or recovering from an injury themselves, Americans need a real paid leave plan in this country that allows them to take the time from work that they need. This can’t wait.”
Upgrading to paid leave from unpaid is a big improvement. However, the Senator seems to be proposing the perpetuation of the same unfair coverage. Anyone, regardless of marital status, can take time off to care for themselves, a parent, or a child. But a married person can also take time off to care for a spouse. A single person cannot take time off to care for someone important to them, such as a close friend or relative, and no such person can take time off to care for the single person when that person is in need.
Now that there are nearly as many adults in the U.S. who are not married as married, it is way past time to implement laws and policies that reflect that reality. Political candidates who continue to selectively benefit and protect people who are officially married should be made to pay a price – by the 110 million unmarried Americans who are getting lesser protection under the law, and by all the married Americans who should want equality for all. And if the latter do not want to do so out of commitment to social justice, then maybe they should do so in pursuit of their own self-interest. After all, more than half of all people who are currently married will end up unmarried – either divorced or widowed. The others will die before their spouse.