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The Permanent Middle Class

Toss in heaping tablespoons of the philosophy outlined in a leaked Wal-Mart memo, then add more than a pinch of globalization. Fold in a few teaspoons of American hyperindividualism, and you have a recipe for something that is both very old and very new in American life: the Permanent Proletariat.

On whose shoulders will this state of affairs rest most heavily? On those of the American family, especially children.

Wal-Mart's leaked memo last year expressed concern that wages and benefits were rising too fast, so the company wants to reduce the current 40 percent of its employees who are full-time to 20 percent. (Wal-Mart is not alone -- this is the pattern many businesses are following.) As the New York Times' Paul Krugman notes, "The problem from the company's point of view is that its workers are too loyal. It wants cheap labor that doesn't hang around too long. But not enough workers quit before acquiring the right to higher wages and benefits."

More of the work force is coming to resemble those people Barbara Ehrenreich wrote of in "Nickel and Dimed," working two jobs but not able to make it, trading off paying the car insurance with eating for the week. Even people better off will find themselves working longer hours, scared to take vacations lest they lose their jobs, working overtime because their employees increasingly demand it, and always on call via their cell phones or pagers.

Our current situation and our public policies could not be more out of sync. Men's wages have been basically stagnant or declining for two decades, high-wage industrial jobs are disappearing overseas, and most families are surviving on the wages of two-income families. Seventy percent of women are in the work force, and 55 percent of mothers of toddlers are working. Harvard economist Richard Freeman reports that the U.S. economy outperformed the EU in the '90s thanks to the earnings of working women with children. The No. 1 stressor of dual earner parents -- with no gender difference -- is the search for good, affordable child care.

The low-wage/high-work world and the two-earner world are with us for the foreseeable future. As is the rapidly growing world of shift work, with mom working one shift and dad another. American families are facing enormous stress, and a reasonable society would be looking at ways to shore up the family with something other than platitudes. After all, it is the crucible of future generations, the matrix of our tomorrows.

The degree to which we are not doing this is astonishing, according to Harvard's Global Working Families project:

* 37 countries guarantee parents some type of paid leave when children fall ill. The U.S. does not.

* 163 countries offer paid maternity leave. The U.S. does not.

* All industrialized countries except Australia offer paid family and medical leave. The U.S. does not. And Australia guarantees a full year of unpaid leave, while the U.S. offers only 12 weeks.

* 45 countries offer paternity leave. The U.S. does not.

* 96 countries mandate paid annual leave. The U.S. does not.

* 84 countries limit the maximum work week employers can require. The U.S. has no limit on mandatory work.

* 40 countries have mandated evening and night wage premiums. The U.S. does not.

* The U.S. is tied for 39th with Ecuador and Surinam for enrollment in early childhood education for 3- to 5-year-olds, and tied for 91st out of 151 countries in preprimary student-to-staff ratios.
And the news media is barely discussing these facts. I was astonished to hear, at the Work/Family/Journalism conference in Boston in 2005, how many reporters said that their editors were bored to death with stories about how European nations dealt with such problems. As a society, we prefer to pretend it's still 1955 and to entertain the fantasy that most women want to drop out of the work force to be homemakers (and can afford to do so), that day care creates bullies, that there's still a family doctor who arrives at our doorstep with his black bag to fix what ails us, that schools need get out at 3 p.m. so kids can go home and do the farm chores.

With the permanent proletariat, we don't have child labor, but we do have latch-key kids, stressed out kids, unhealthy kids and undereducated kids (especially compared to nations where all children are in preschool). Families are dealing with major stress over how to create family time as the hours go up and the wages go down, as the vacations go away and the overtime mounts.

America has always welcomed and used cheap labor. If 6-year-olds could put in ten-hour days, why not? But with an expanding industrial economy, people could hope that their kids would do better, that their labor would get their children -- or at least their grandchildren -- into the middle class. That dream is fading, as inequality increases. Statistics show that the middle class is shrinking. And young men and women from the richest quarter of American earners increased their share of seats in elite American universities from 39 percent in 1976 to 50 percent in 1995, reports the Economist.

As non-elite Americans more and more become a disposable commodity, working at low-paying and part-time jobs, they are sans benefits, sans health care, sans family leave, sans much of anything, and their children more and more pay the price. Research tells us that workers in jobs who face high demands but low control over their own time and labor face the highest stress. Their ranks are growing, and their children are more and more at risk.

That is our new version of family values.

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