Do people working work in working families?

It’s not that “working families” don’t exist, it’s just the way most people use this term it doesn’t mean anything.

Search Google images for “working families,” and you’ll find images like this:

4f4a9a28-ff28-4bc7-88e5-f0df4522b2dbAnd that’s pretty much the way the term is used: every family is a working family.

To hear the White House talk, you have to wonder whether there are people who aren’t in families. I’ve complained about this before, Obama’s tendency to say things like, “This reform is good for families; it’s good for businesses; it’s good for the entire economy.” As if “families” covers all people.

Specifically, if you Google search the White House website‘s press office directory, which is where the speeches live, like this, you get 457 results, such as this transcript of remarks by Michelle Obama at a “Corporate Voices for Working Families” event. The equivalent search for “working people” yields a paltry 108 hits (many of them Obama speeches at campaign events, which include false-positives, like him making the ridiculous claim that Americans are the “hardest working people on Earth.”) If you search the entire Googleverse for “working families” you get about 318 million hits, versus just just 7 million for “working people” (less than the 10 million that turns up for “Kardashians,” whatever that means.)

You would never know that 33 million Americans live alone – comprising 27% of all households. And 50 million people, or one out of every 6 people, lives in what the Census Bureau defines as a “non-family household,” or a household in which the householder has no relatives (some of those people may be cohabitors, however). The rise of this phenomenon was ably described by Eric Klinenberg in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.

This is partly a complaint about cheap rhetoric, but it’s also about the assumption that families are primary social units when it comes to things like policy and economics, and about the false universality of “middle class” (which is made up of “working families”) in reference to anyone (in a family with anyone) with a job.

Here’s one visualization, from a Google ngrams search of millions of books. The blue line is use of the phrase “working people” as a fraction of references to “people,” while the red line is use of the phrase “working families” as a fraction of references to “families.” It shows, I think, that “working” is coming to define families, not people.

CaptureThis isn’t all bad. Families matter, and part of the attention to “working families” (or Families That Work) is driven by important problems of work-family conflict, unequal care work burdens, and so on. But ultimately these are problems because they affect people (some of whom are in families). When we treat families as the primary unit of analysis, we mask the divisions within families – the conflicts of interest and exploitation, the violence and abuse, and the ephemeral nature of many family relationships and commitments – and we contribute to the marginalization of people who aren’t in, or don’t have, families.  And those members of the No Family community need our attention, too.

7 thoughts on “Do people working work in working families?

  1. Great post–rhetoric is so pervasive that we rarely question it. I have been thinking a lot about rhetoric as it applies to other social problems like poverty. We think poverty is a crisis when it refers to children but not when it refers to adults. I should do a similar analysis of childhood poverty versus adult poverty. Thanks for this post!


  2. How many of the of the 33M “aloners” are widowed retirees? (IOW, formerly members of families.)

    Regarding “non-family household”, I can think of college students and Asian Indians and illegal Mexicans besides cohabitors. (Do you count gays/lesbians in states without same-sex marriage as cohabitors?) How many of the hetero cohabitors will soon have children?


    1. Yes, almost everyone either has had, or will have, a family. But the unit at which wellbeing should usually be evaluated is people, I believe. (Legal status isn’t the issue for immigrants; anyone with relatives out of the country would count as familyless – it’s a household concept of families, which is limited.)


  3. From the first time I heard “Working Families,” I assumed it was a way for liberals — I mean progressives — to counter the image of being against “family values.” It also rehabilitates work in those collectivist phrases that have been favorites among lefties but which have been going out of fashion. Try n-gramming “working class” — downhill since 1975. And “the workers,” a commie phrase if ever I’ve heard one, started heading for the tall grass in the mid-30s and isn’t about to come out of hiding. So “working families,” if it works, is a sort of dog whistle for the left that doesn’t alienate the right. I mean, even in New York, you can’t call your political party “Socialist.” Instead, our ballots have the Working Families party.


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