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Across the political spectrum, the family has again become the center of social policy. From welfare to education, from public safety to job preparedness, the family has been recognized again as the ultimate building block of a good and strong community.
But in the past generation, the family's ability to make its distinctive contribution to the commonweal has been fractured and tested by the very challenges that make the family so vital as a ''haven in a heartless world'' - two-earner families, long commutes, pressurized public schools, the need to care for elders.
How can that most intimate of private institutions get the support it needs to not only thrive on its own terms, but also contribute to private enterprises and public and community endeavors, might be the signal challenge of our time. Only when we give our diverse families the support they need can we expect to address other social challenges in our midst.
At the center of this dilemma is the question of family leave. Ever since President Bill Clinton signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, families and businesses have struggled to find the means to allow workers take time off to meet the challenges of pregnancy and childbirth, medical emergencies, the care of elder parents, and other urgent family needs - and at the same time assure that businesses keep operations humming when workers take that time.
Surveys show that large majorities of people want to find a way to enable to pursue careers while at the same time get leaves to tend to family matters. There seems to be a broad understanding that economy is only as strong as the families that make up the community. In Massachusetts we need to find a way to assure that workers can develop meaningful career paths.
Shifts in employment point to the need for some kind of family leave benefits. In 1998, two-earner families became the majority of all married-couple families. Of the 3.7 million women with infants under 1 in 1998, a record 59 percent were in the labor force, with 36 percent working full time. The number of women quitting their jobs around the time of giving birth to their first child fell from 63 percent in 1961-65 to 27 percent in 1991-95.
The Family and Medical Leave Act takes care of half of the problem, by providing workers with protections against dismissal when they take leaves from work for legitimate family needs. Employers must continue to pay whatever health insurance workers got before taking time off. But most workers cannot take time off without financial support, and most businesses cannot afford to keep paying workers who are not on the job.
The Executive Office of Administration and Finance estimates that, out of about 100,000 people who wanted to take leave to care for a newborn in Massachusetts in 2000, about 6,000 workers felt they could not afford to do so. That might seem a small number, but the bigger story is that a large majority of other workers are constrained by the no-benefits FMLA. Furthermore, a significant number of workers - over 70,000 from families with annual incomes ranging from $20,000 to $75,000 - would have taken more time off had they received additional pay.
If we understand family and medical leave to be a matter of social insurance, three policy options present themselves.
One option is to expand or redefine social insurance policies. Unemployment insurance and temporary disability insurance provide ready-made pools from which to draw for family leave. Such a policy
would involve expanding our understanding of what social insurance is - not a bad idea, every generation or so, especially with welfare reform and changing employment patterns.
A second option is to create a new insurance pool specifically for family leave. Workers could be required to join the system, which would be operated on a statewide system and implemented through workplaces. Such an approach would keep existing systems ''clean'' but also require a new bureaucratic apparatus.
A third option is to require or encourage companies to offer some kind of family leave plan, but leave the details to the specific firms. Such an approach would produce a patchwork quilt - uneven quality but greater creativity and diversity.
The business community has given mixed reviews to paid-leave legislation. Nancy Connolly, president of the printer cartridge firm Lasertone, remarks: ''If someone's pregnant, they can plan what to do
about it for nine months; they shouldn't look to business for a solution, particularly small businesses, where losing employees for several weeks can severely affect productivity.''
Public officials in Massachusetts, facing billions in budget deficits, are understandably uneasy about adding new entitlements to our social welfare system. But at the same time, making the Commonwealth business-friendly also requires making it worker-friendly.
Gubernatorial candidates as diverse as Mitt Romney, Robert Reich, and Steve Grossman have discussed the importance of rebuilding the state's ''infrastructure'' at the same time we hack away at the underbrush of waste and inefficiency. Usually, infrastructure is understood as roads, bridges, parks, and other parts of the built environment.
But maybe in our age of human capital, the definition of infrastructure should include the basic supports that families and businesses need to husband and develop their own resources. In that case, the time has arrived for a thorough policy debate about paid family leave policy.