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Journal Issue: Work and Family Volume 21 Number 2 Fall 2011

Policies to Assist Parents with Young Children
Christopher J. Ruhm


Balancing the competing needs of work and family life is a challenge for most households, but the difficulties may be greatest for households with young children, defined here as newborns through age five. Parents in many of these families struggle to find sufficient time both to fulfill work responsibilities and provide the intensive care that young children require.

Two trends exacerbate this struggle in the United States. First, mothers with infants and small children engage in market employment at much higher rates than they once did. Sixty percent of mothers with children under the age of six worked in 2008 compared with 33 percent in 1975.1 This near-doubling reflects a general increase in the share of all working women as well as particularly fast growth in employment among mothers. Second, more children are now raised by single parents, mostly females: the proportion of children under age eighteen in sole-parent households rose from 23 percent in 1980 to 30 percent in 2008.2 Clearly, single-parent households do not have the option of one parent working while the other cares for the children, nor do these households have the same flexibility as two-parent families to coordinate work schedules with family obligations. The growing number of single-parent households also suggests that fewer adults are available to share family responsibilities. In combination, these trends imply that a smaller fraction of young children reside in families with an adult who does not work or works only part time: the share of children with a nonworking parent declined from 64 to 34 percent between 1967 and 2009; the fraction with all parents in the household employed full time and full year rose from 14 to 33 percent.3

Public policies designed to ease work-family conflicts have been implemented at both the federal and state level. The most significant is the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides some parents the right to twelve weeks of unpaid leave following the birth of a child or for other reasons. Entitlements to job-protected or paid leave nevertheless remain extremely limited in the United States, particularly in comparison with other countries. In 2006 the United States was 1 of only 4 nations, of a total of 173, that did not guarantee some measure of paid maternity leave.4 Even more significant, all other developed countries provide new parents rights to paid time off from work, and these entitlements often last well into early childhood.5 Also important are policies related to the provision and financing of early childhood education and care (ECEC). Indeed, in many countries the distinction between parental leave and ECEC is no longer clear-cut. Parents often have rights to extensive leaves that cover a substantial portion of the early childhood period, and policies related to time off work and care of infants and toddlers are often fairly tightly integrated.6

By and large, U.S. parental policies differ dramatically from those in other industrialized countries. Foreigners frequently express surprise at the limited nature of U.S. policies, and changes that would be considered radical by many Americans are modest by their standards. Given these substantial differences in attitudes, traditions, and the institutional environment surrounding families and work, parental leave and ECEC policies in place elsewhere may not produce the same results in the United States. Still, the experiences of other nations may offer useful lessons that could help shape workable policy in the United States.7

This article summarizes key characteristics of parental leave and ECEC policies in the United States, Canada, and countries of Western Europe and assesses their consequences for important parent and child outcomes. Isolating the effects of these policies from other influences on the family-work balance is challenging. Recently, however, researchers have begun to use a variety of sophisticated estimation procedures (such as difference-in-difference, instrumental variables, and regression discontinuity methods) in an effort to do so. Although considerable uncertainty often remains, as reflected in the somewhat ambiguous results reported in several places in this article, these findings from the United States and other advanced countries nonetheless point in some interesting policy directions.8