Journal Issue: Work and Family Volume 21 Number 2 Fall 2011
This issue of The Future of Children describes the challenges parents face in taking care of family responsibilities while also holding down a job and explores the implications of those challenges for child and family wellbeing. As children grow and develop, parents are the hub in a system of care to meet their needs, a system that includes extended family, preschools, schools, health care providers, community organizations, and others, but in which parents play the lead role. Often these same working parents have additional care responsibilities for other family members—in particular, the elderly—and are, for them too, the hub around which other caregivers, services, and programs revolve.
Work-family challenges are as varied as the families that must deal with them, and they change in nature over time. Some working parents are better positioned than others to meet their family's care needs because they have higher incomes, more access to informal support from family members and others, or more support from employers or public policies. But no families, even middle- and high-income families, are immune from the challenge of balancing work and family obligations. Employers' needs and capacities are tremendously varied as well, particularly given the large role in the U.S. labor market of small, often family-owned businesses. Such wide variation suggests that meeting the work-family challenge will require flexibility and an array of options, rather than a onesize- fits-all approach.
The rising shares of women in the workforce and of families headed by single parents have made work-family issues especially prominent and challenging, as more employees, both men and women, face care responsibilities at home and fewer have a stay-at-home spouse to manage them. The work-family challenge has also been heightened by an increase in longevity that has boosted the share of the population that is elderly. Although many elderly Americans are healthy (and indeed provide assistance to their adult children and grandchildren), others require care and support from their family members.
Although these demographic trends have been observed to some extent in every modern economy, the challenges of meeting work and family obligations are particularly problematic in the United States. Simply put, U.S. work and family policies have not been updated to reflect the new reality of American family life. The social welfare system in the United States, more so than in other countries, is designed around the idea that government assistance is a last resort, provided only after families have first used available family, community, and employer supports, or in cases where such supports do not exist. Economists generally endorse limited government involvement but identify several types of situations where government may need to step in. For example, in cases where the benefits of a policy would accrue not just to the individual family or employer but to society more generally, it is in the public's interest for government to provide those benefits. That principle is the rationale for universal public education, where the United States has historically been a world leader, although its edge in higher education is eroding and it has fallen behind other countries in preschool education. In other situations, private insurance markets may not be able to cover a particular risk, necessitating public provision of social insurance. Social Security, for example, helps ensure that elders have adequate incomes; Medicare (and Medicaid) ensures that elders have health insurance coverage; and the Older Americans Act provides in-home services such as Meals on Wheels. These federal programs recognize the limits of family, community, or employer support for the elderly and fill in the gaps.
The U.S. system of public supports for families with children or families with elderly relatives who need more care is typically less well developed than the systems in other advanced countries, and U.S. parents continue to rely primarily on their families, communities, and employers for support. The advantage of this approach is that the United States has a larger community-based volunteer sector and a better-developed system of employer supports than do many other countries; the disadvantage is that these supports do not reach all workers, particularly those of low socioeconomic status. Employer policies tend to be inequitably distributed, with the highest-paid workers receiving the best packages of benefits. In short, the employees who may most need family-support assistance from their employer may be least likely to receive it.
A further consequence of relying heavily on employer supports is that work-family policies are seen—often quite rightly—as imposing costs on employers, costs that may be particularly onerous for small businesses. At the same time, the extensive U.S. reliance on employer supports has caused public policies in this area to be underdeveloped compared with those in other peer nations. The United States, for example, is the only advanced country without paid maternity leave and one of the few without paid paternity leave, sick leave, or annual leave. It is also unique among peer nations in not providing universal public access to preschool in the year or two before school entry.
In thinking about policy solutions to the work-family challenge, it is important to keep the American context in mind and to focus on policies that are consistent with American values as well as with the best economic evidence. At the same time, it may be useful to rethink some common assumptions that may be interfering with progress in this area. One such assumption is that work-family issues necessarily represent an area where employer and employee interests collide. The need to meet both work and family responsibilities may well pose a conflict for the individual employee who is trying to be in two places at once, but addressing work-family issues does not necessarily pit the interests of employers against those of employees. In particular, a good deal of evidence shows that greater workplace flexibility benefits both employers and employees. Allowing employees more control over their work hours and more flexibility to adjust hours or work location when family demands arise can lead to increased employee productivity, satisfaction, and retention. Far from representing a cost to employers, such policies, if well designed to take into account the needs of both employers and employees, can yield benefits.
Another questionable assumption is that work-family issues are of concern to women only. Although women are more likely than men to have care responsibilities, and to spend more time on them, the gender gap in caring has narrowed significantly. Substantial numbers of male employees have family obligations, and they too face conflicts between managing those obligations and their responsibilities at work. The landmark U.S. legislation in the work-family area, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, recognized this new reality by adopting a gender-neutral approach, providing a period of leave for all new parents, both mothers and fathers, and for all employees, both male and female, who need leave because of their own health or the health of a family member. The approach is promising and researchers should keep it in mind in considering other policies.
A third assumption that bears rethinking is that work-family challenges are problems that only families and employers need address. As noted, it may be appropriate for government to take on an expanded role in some situations. But other sectors may also have a role to play. The family members for whom employees are providing care are typically receiving care in other systems, such as preschools, schools, health care providers, and other community organizations. Could these other providers do more to help address work-family challenges, by, for example, changing their opening hours or providing more coordination of care or more transportation? Fifty years ago, when most children had a stay-at-home mom, preschools and kindergartens could reasonably operate on a two-hour-a-day schedule, schools could expect parents to come in for parent-teacher conferences after school or to take care of children during teacher training days and snow days, and doctors' offices could expect a parent to spend an hour or two at a child's routine checkup. But with most children no longer having a stay-at-home parent, it would be a great relief for both parents and employers if schools and doctors' offices were to modify these expectations to correspond to today's family and workplace realities. Although such changes are often difficult to make and cannot eliminate all, or even most, sources of work-family conflict, they could certainly help reduce it.