In the last two generations, the hours worked by American families have increased significantly as greater numbers of women have moved into the workplace. The resulting work patterns have put considerable stress on family life, particularly when it comes to accomplishing the caretaking tasks traditionally performed by women. The legal and policy responses to this problem have been surprisingly muted in the United States. Compared with many European nations, for example, the United States has done very little to ensure adequate time for family life, to ameliorate conflicts between work and family, and to ensure that critical functions such as child rearing, which were once largely handled within families, are still adequately accomplished. This gap in law and public policy has left American families to deal with these issues privately. The various routes they have taken, however, impose large costs on important public goods, including children’s welfare, sex equality, and civic participation.
This Essay argues that the United States’ failure to help families negotiate work-family issues is not only poor policy, it is a dereliction of the state’s most basic responsibilities. The liberal democratic commitment to human dignity that is foundational to the United States’ understanding of itself, this Essay contends, requires it to support caretaking in order to meet the dependency needs that are inevitable in human lives. Because of the large role that the condition of dependency plays in human lives, supporting caretaking is every bit as important to maintaining human dignity as protecting citizens’ security or defending their individual rights.