Toward a Better Life

Weekly Article
New America
March 28, 2019

This article is part of an occasional series that highlights some of the big ideas New America has influenced over its 20-year history. Read the previous entry here.

In 2001, Karen Kornbluh came to New America determined to create a work-family program aimed at improving the lives of women and families. Afterward, Kornbluh went on to serve as policy director for then-Sen. Barack Obama, and was later the Obama administration’s ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Ambassador Kornbluh is now senior fellow and director of the German Marshall Fund’s Digital Innovation Democracy Initiative.

As director of the Better Life Lab, I’ve built on Kornbluh’s foundation and continue the work to create a culture so that people and families can combine work and care in meaningful ways across the arc of their lives.

I recently sat down with Kornbluh to talk about the journey of the work-family program at New America, the urgency of the challenges ahead, and why this work is so critical to the renewing of America. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brigid Schulte: Let’s start at the beginning. You came to New America in 2001. New America, founded in 1999, is this brand new think tank. What was the state of work-family issues at the time, and how did you come to want to work on them?

Karen Kornbluh: I’ll try to answer with my personal story. I had been working on economic and tech policy in the private sector, on the Hill, and then the Federal Communications Commission. Then I had a kid, and went to Treasury. My mother was a big feminist, and despite the fact that I should have known better, I was one of those stereotypical people who thought, “Thank you very much for solving feminism.”


I thought if I worked hard enough, kept going, I’d have the same opportunities as a man. Then I had a kid and tried to work, and I’m so embarrassed about this, but I didn’t really realize the challenges of combining work and family until it happened to me. So shame on me.

Now, that didn’t mean that there weren’t advocates and policymakers who weren’t working hard to build support for increasing funding for child care and after school care, for health care for women and families, for paid family leave. But I as an economic and tech policy person and feminist managed somehow not to be aware how essential these issue were.

Schulte: It was the same for me, absent the feminist mother. And it’s still far too common an experience for so many women—slamming unexpectedly into the maternal wall. It’s an indicator, really, of how little sustained attention and importance we’ve given to work-family issues.

Kornbluh: At the time, many in the mainstream media and economic policymakers saw work-life issues like parental leave and child care as cultural issues, saw feminism as a “cultural” issue, thought that women just wanted to “have it all.”

And what I felt, coming from an economic policy point of view—being very aware of how the middle-class family was being squeezed, how people were working two jobs, and how the overwhelming majority of women had gone into the workplace in many cases because they had no choice—it seemed so dated the way Washington thought of these issues.

I remember at the time, the cover of one conservative magazine showed a caricature of this really evil working mother neglecting her child. That reflected the idea that work-family issues were about feminism and that feminism really meant upper-income women who were selfish. That work-family policies were about giving privileged women more choices and the ability to ignore their kids, as opposed to addressing an economic challenge and an equity challenge affecting families across the board. And in the policy environment, solving those problems for the average American family wasn’t even on the table. It was an unseen phenomenon. And it struck me that if I was feeling that stress—and seeing it as “my fault” rather than a structural issue—as someone relatively privileged, I could only imagine what a single parent or a low-income family was going through.

So I started reading voraciously. I read Nancy Folbre, Sonya Michel, Joan Williams, Betty Friedan, Ron Elving, met with advocates for child care and paid leave. I quit Treasury when I became pregnant with my second child and wrote an article for The Washington Post called “The Mommy Tax” to try to put an economic security frame around these issues. And I really wanted to work on that. So I went to see Ted [Halstead], and I was, like, 13 months pregnant, to say that I wanted to come to New America and work on these issues.

Schulte: What did you want to do with a work-family program?

Kornbluh: I wanted to reframe the debate from one where the harm was to a very narrow, privileged set of people, where the political support was very narrow and controversial—only certain people on the left would care, and people on the right would be upset about it. I wanted to set a frame around the issue to argue to politicians that a broad swath of Americans would care because it affected their economics. I wanted to take work-family from being seen by politicians as a somehow risky cultural issue to a mainstream economic issue, and from a privileged issue to one that also impacted the poor and middle class. I was writing about what E.J. Dionne at a New America New State of the Union event called the Burger King Mom, who had to bring her sick child to work.

In addition to reframing the issue, I also wanted to show politicians that it was important to follow through. And document the harms. I don’t mean to say that I discovered the issue or discovered the framing; other advocacy groups, academics, and some policymakers had been doing important work on these issues for some time. But I was trying to put it together in the more popular mainstream and policy-oriented conversations.

Schulte: Given the very real strain American families across the socio-economic spectrum were feeling—squeezed economically, pressed for time, struggling to find child care they could afford, all of which, I might add, they’re still feeling 20 years later—why do you think that the mainstream conversation was so out of touch and so stuck in this myopic, negative cultural argument?

Kornbluh: Part of it, honestly, is that the influencers weren’t experiencing that stress. The people who were writing those articles and voting on laws were largely men with stay-at-home spouses. I just don’t think that they saw what was happening to families. Frankly, most people didn’t see it as a structural issue. People in Washington still don’t. When you try to explain the impact of economic trends on the huge percentage of children who live with a single mother [22 percent], or the huge percentage of children in America living in poverty [41 percent living on the brink], they still don’t really understand it. It’s astounding. At the time, I wrote an article with Jared Bernstein, who was then at the Economic Policy Institute and then went on to become Joe Biden's economic adviser, about how families were running faster to stay in place. And I think that the other reason why these issues weren’t even on the table is just our ongoing ambivalence about the social welfare state.

What we wound up arguing for was a host of programs [Win-Win Flexibility]—not only paid family and medical leave and sick days, but also some flexibility ideas, like in Europe, and child care, as well as how health care, pensions, and social security have to change for it to be possible for people to care and take time out of work. We also did an analysis of that old system—of social insurance, how that forced some of the ways we saw family and work play out—because you had benefits attached to jobs.

Schulte: What strikes me is how, 20 years later, though some progress has been made, how meager that progress has been. I took over as director of the work-family program in the fall of 2015, after writing Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. When I came to New America, I wanted to work on fixing the problems I wrote about at the intersection of work/gender, race, and class equity/family-supportive social policy. And even in 2015, though the stigma against working mothers had eased some, work-family issues were still seen as “women’s issues,” and the only family policies discussed were in the context of poverty—welfare or the child care subsidies for the very poor that are difficult to get and keep, and cover only one in six eligible children.

We chose the name The Better Life Lab to try to break out of those silos, and create energy and excitement around the idea that all people and families should be able to choose how to combine work and care in meaningful ways across the arc of their lives in order to thrive—connecting the idea that work-family issues are universal, and fundamentally about human rights, civil rights, opportunity, The Good Life, and the American Dream. And they’re good for everyone—individuals across the gender spectrum; 21st-century families of love, blood, and choice; economic opportunity and national security and cohesion.

And this is a rather long way of saying that so much of what we’re calling for on our agenda is what you called for 20 years ago: paid family and medical leave; paid sick days; public and private investment in high-quality child care that doesn’t stress already financially tapped out families, providers who operate on razor-thin margins; nudging “ideal worker” norms so that caregivers and people who want full lives, too, are no longer seen as lesser workers; the right to request flexible work, the right to decent wages, schedule control, and autonomy at work; gender-neutral benefits; the possibility of portable benefits not tied to work; sharing care responsibilities rather than expecting women to do it all; valuing unpaid care and caregivers. But the fact that, 20 years later, we’re still working on some of the same issues, I find really frustrating.

Kornbluh: I was encouraged, then really discouraged for the last two years. But right now, I’m seeing slight reason for hope, and I’ll tell you why. When I was at New America, I was hoping that as more people in the middle class fell out of the social insurance scheme that was designed during and after World War II, that there would be an understanding that we needed a more citizen-based, lifespan-based approach—a little bit more like Europe. I thought that the way our social insurance was designed—leaving out immigrants and women and many African Americans from these good manufacturing jobs and the social insurance benefits that went along with them—that as more white people and middle-class people fell out of the system, we would have an epiphany as a country, and we would change it.

When George W. Bush was running for re-election, he used some of our poll-tested language in his speeches. He said that more families are two-income single-parent working families, and we have to update our rules and make it possible for them to be good parents and good workers. Obviously, once he was elected, he didn’t do much on that score. Then there was Sarah Palin—we have women running for national office who are working moms. So it did feel like, as a country, we were at least understanding that it’s not a “choice” for women to work, or that it’s something to be belittled, and that families needed more support.

President Barack Obama cared about these issues personally and championed them. And most importantly, he passed the Affordable Care Act. Health care is not considered a work-family policy but high health-care costs are a huge strain on family budgets and tying insurance to good, full-time jobs was a huge part of the problem That’s why in a piece I wrote for The Atlantic, “The Parent Trap,” health insurance reform was the major recommendation.

But then [President Donald] Trump’s economic message to middle class families—the implicit message—succeeded, and it was, “Let’s just go back, back to the era when certain families had all their benefits through the workplace and when one salary could support the family, and we didn’t have to acknowledge that the benefits came from the government because it seemed like they magically came to you because of merit, because that job in the auto factory or the coal mine was great as a result of no policy decisions.” I was really discouraged that it seemed, instead of going forward into an era where we could equitably share risk in the new economy, a whole swath of America was rejecting that idea, saying, “no, we don’t want to share. We’re going to pretend it’s possible to go back, instead of facing reality and sharing risk with others who are not like us.” And that was discouraging.

But still, you saw Ivanka Trump understanding that she had to champion these issues to soften Trump politically. That’s a big deal. She hasn’t gotten anything through (and her new proposal would borrow money from retirement to pay for family leave). And now, to have the new governor of California come out for a bunch of family policies on day one, for New York to have pre-K, for so many presidential candidates to be talking about these issues, it shows that there’s an understanding that this is something families need to have. And that it’s not politically dangerous to talk about it; it’s an asset. That’s made me more encouraged in recent months.

Schulte: So as we look forward, what’s next? How do we start turning these ideas into reality?

Kornbluh: Before I answer, I’m really curious what you think.

Schulte: This is what I think about all the time, because this is what we’re trying to do [at New America]. We talk about pressing different levers to move policy, practice, and culture to create a better life for people and families. When it comes to policy, I do think that we need to continue to make the economic case, as you did. So many of our family policies—or lack thereof—have deeply racist and sexist roots. I’ve been thinking about how we can normalize the changing workforce, and change not just policy, but practice and culture, to recognize that all workers have lives and care responsibilities, and that it’s better for business, the economy, and looking at the despair and opioid epidemic wrought by hollowed-out jobs, how prioritizing worker wellbeing and family stability is key to stable communities and the civic life of the nation.

I’ve been thinking how we need to make the case, especially as the country becomes more diverse, that we need to invest in “our” kids, embracing the diversity of the upcoming generation, rather than thinking small, and othering “those” kids who may not look like us. How do we help people see that it’s not only the morally right thing to do, but actually in their self interest—that as the population ages, and technology changes the nature of work, you really want educated, skilled, well-compensated workers living their best lives and supporting you—your Social Security, your Medicare—as you age, so you can live your best life, too.

But we are still so stuck on cultural issues. A recent study of American attitudes over the past few decades really struck me—researchers found that a large majority think it’s OK to have gender equality at work. But a substantial share still think that women should be responsible for everything at home, too—that’s the crazy-making phenomenon I was living that has repercussions all up and down the socio-economic ladder, that drove me to write my book in the first place. So there are cultural and attitudinal shifts that need to happen.

And when you look at workplace culture and practice, though there have been movements for flexibility or family-supportive benefits, many are seen as accommodations, or exceptions for lesser workers. Many have policies that look great on the books, but HR professionals call them “ghost benefits,” because no one will use them. And that’s because the research clearly shows that, as work has become more precarious, the expectations for the “ideal worker” —long hours, face time at the office—have ratched up. So that the very structure and organization of work disadvantages women and caregivers, and anyone who doesn’t conform to what is, in essence, propping up the old boy system, it contributes to the pay gap and reinforces the male breadwinner norm. We’re trying to challenge that norm through data, research, and narratives that show a different kind of role model and nudge cultural change that way.

It’s all tied together. As a country, we still have so much ambivalence about the social welfare system and the role of government in family matters, we have such ambivalence about the role of mothers and motherhood and who should be the caregiver and what families should look like. We are so ambivalent about how to define work, and what good work looks like, and we seem unwilling to rethink it even as work becomes more precarious with gig and contract work and the coming software and automation revolution.

So, that’s my long, rambling way of saying—we’re working on it!

Kornbluh: I do feel like the fact that so many more women were just elected to Congress is such a big deal. And that younger women haven’t grown up with the same stereotypes that we all grew up with. That can really make a big difference. And the thing I think that really will matter is if people have a real understanding of the precariousness that you were talking about that’s affecting families and inequality, and what’s behind it.

I do think that the feminist debate has really been energized. By Time’s Up, and before that by books like [New America President and CEO] Anne Marie Slaughter’s and even Lean In. There may be controversy, and they speak to different people, but it's a vibrant, rich debate that was ghettoized for a long time.

And when it comes to policy, I thought that the health-care debate was really instructive, because that became a third rail—taking away people’s health insurance. The popularity of an overall health insurance system and policy went up when people had it, and when they understood what it would mean to lose it. Part of the problem is that people have lost trust in the government’s ability to solve problems. Yet people think Social Security is a success. They think Medicare is a success. Are there solutions to work-family problems that can build on the success those programs, and on the fact that people are living in such precarious situations, and not fall into a “we have a big government solution that relies on you to trust government.”

Because not only are there all the challenges you laid out, but the student loan situation has made things worse for families. Health-care costs. The precariousness of jobs. The lack of pensions and the coming technological disruption at work. Things are getting worse for families. And I think there’s a political dam breaking that says, “We’ve got to do something.” I think we’re at that point. Not for good reasons—we didn’t get ahead of it. But we’re at the point where there is some recognition that this is really urgent.

Schulte: So building on that urgency is key to finally breaking through?

Kornbluh: Yes. The key is to merge the economic conversation we’re having about wages, health care, pensions, student debt, and the conversation about child care and paid leave. And do it at the family level and with moral language. Whether it’s an unmarried individual caring for an elderly parent or a single-parent family or a dual-earner family—how can you be supported in your efforts to honor your work and your home responsibilities without an update to the social insurance system and supports that we made available to the single earner manufacturing breadwinner family post-World War II?

You’ve got presidential candidates like Kamala Harris saying universal pre-K and free college is part of a right to education. That’s a big change. I think what they call the “Overton Window” is shifting—the window of things that are acceptable to talk about.

Schulte: That’s so true. Paid family and medical leave wasn’t even a presidential campaign issue until 2016, at a time when virtually all other advanced economies had had operating paid leave systems for years, in some cases, like Germany and Sweden, for well over a century. And now it’s become part of the national conversation. I’ll keep that in mind: continuing to build on the great foundation you laid for this work, focusing on urgency and equity, connecting the economics to the cultural, and continuing to nudge the Overton Window to stretch the vision of what’s possible for equity and for families in this country.