Foundations excel at providing support for issues that affect underserved communities. Given that incomes in the bottom third of American families have fallen 29 percent since 1979 (in inflation-adjusted dollars) and federal government support for the social safety net has diminished, attention to the neediest is vital.
In an earlier era, foundations helped to incubate solutions to social problems that government later embraced and brought to scale, from public libraries (Carnegie) to a national 911 service (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) to public health initiatives (Rockefeller Foundation).
A shift away from universal benefits occurred after 1960, sparked in part by Michael Harrington's The Other America: Poverty in the United States(1962). Harrington documented and decried the persistence of poverty in the world's richest nation to great effect: subsequently, President Lyndon Johnson made the War on Poverty a key component of his Great Society program.
Starting in the 1930s, progressive reformers advocated for universal programs: Social Security, unemployment insurance, workers' compensation. In contrast, the means-tested programs instituted during the War on Poverty, including Head Start, Upward Bound, legal services for the poor, and enhancements in welfare benefits, all failed to garner the kind of iron-clad support that the earlier universal entitlement programs enjoy to this day.
One Great Society program that hasreceived widespread support is Medicare and the fact that it has dramatically underscores the different political dynamic sparked by means-tested as opposed to universal programs. Recall the sign held up by an opponent of national health insurance during the debate over Obamacare: "Get your government hands off my Medicare." Americans may hate "government," but we love our rights.
Why is support for means-tested and universal programs so different? As a Brooklyn lawyer in the 1970s put it, when programs help the poor but not Americans who are just a bit richer, the "have-a-littles" turn against the "have-nots." That dynamic is clearly evident in the anti-tax fervor tapped by the Tea Party. In his book Canarsie, Jonathan Rieder quotes a Brooklyn housewife: "The taxes go to the poor, not to us....The middle-income people are carrying the cost of liberal social programs on their backs."
Indeed, as the family income of the 53 percent of Americans who are neither rich nor poor has fallen 13 percent since 1979 (despite the fact that wives have joined the labor force in large numbers), means-tested programs have fueled class conflict.
For many living in what political scientist Theda Skocpol calls the "Missing Middle," it's a constant struggle. Families typically tag team their child care, with Mom working one shift, Dad a different one, and each caring for the children while the other is at work. Dad comes home from the night shift, makes the kids breakfast, and sends them off to school. Exhausted, he tries to nap whenever the baby naps and grabs a few hours of sleep after Mom comes home, until it's time to go back to work. Tag-team families have three to six times the national divorce rate, and they get annoyed with means-tested programs that give childcare subsidies to 30 percent of low-income children but not to them. (They may not know that those subsidies are paltry and uncertain.)
Missing Middle families also typically have rigid, highly supervised jobs that leave them one sick child away from being fired. Take the material handler who was fired when he needed, as a divorced father, to stay home with his ill, asthmatic son. If a tag-team parent is ordered to put in mandatory overtime on short notice and can't, the family stands to lose one of its regular paychecks. Unfortunately, more often than not both are needed to pay the mortgage.
In an era when the adults in roughly 80 percent of families with children are in the labor force, too many employers still assume that the breadwinner-housewife workforce model is the norm. The result is a remarkably democratic epidemic of work-family conflict. Ninety-five percent of American fathers and 90 percent of mothers have experienced work-family conflict a rate much higher than what we see in Europe. Meanwhile, the U.S. has the most family-hostile public policy in the developed world.
The message for foundations working to find or fund solutions to social problems is clear. First, programs that focus on the neediest without paying attention to the Missing Middle fuel class conflict that often undercuts their vitality and longevity. Moreover, in an era when Missing Middle families are losing ground, a tight focus on the poor plays into the hands of anti-tax politicians who see Big Government as taking from the have-a-littles to give to the have-nots and then argue that social safety nets are the province of private philanthropy, not government.
On a deeper level, we know that work-family conflict is a key driver of poverty. For women, having a child is the single best predictor of poverty in old age. Low-income single parents typically have unstable schedules that change from week to week, making it impossible to arrange child care. For them, workplace flexibility is called having to quit over and over again. Workplace readiness is not the issue; what these families and the have-a-littles need are jobs that don't leave them one sick child away from being fired.
The last, and most important, message is that efforts to address the widespread economic distress caused by work-family conflict have the potential to transform American politics. Endless debates over "family values" have fueled class conflict for thirty years now, even as working-class people have idealized the "traditional" family as a way of ensuring stability in an increasingly uncertain world. Americans deeply disagree about family ideals, but rich and poor alike face a similar reality: twenty-first century workplaces that don't work for twenty-first century families.
As globalization and technological change continue to transform our economy and politics, foundations could help shift the focus awayfrom family ideals and ontothe need to alleviate the struggles of ordinary Americans working to support and care for their families. Foundations could take the lead in forging coalitions that support universal programs aimed at rebuilding the safety net for all Americans. In doing so, they could help update the American dream for the twenty-first century.
Joan C. Williams is the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. She is a prize-winning author and expert on work/family issues whose most recent book is Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter (Harvard University Press, 2010).