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(February 2011) American families have changed dramatically in recent years. More children are living with single parents and more mothers are working. As a result, stay-at-home mothers, once the norm, have become increasingly rare. These changes have profound implications for the role of work-family policies in promoting child well-being. As part of PRB’s Policy Seminar series, Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University, and author of Britain’s War on Poverty, described four major types of work-family policies: parental leave, other types of paid leave, flexible work arrangements, and child care. She assessed the adequacy of current policies in the United States, drawing on evidence from around the world.
Waldfogel summarized the current research on the effects of work-family policies on child well-being. Trends show a steady upward increase in both parents working full-time, underscoring the need for adequate support and child care for working parents, especially in the case of low-income families who have fewer private resources available to them.
Paid leave includes sick leave, vacation, and personal. Paid sick leave is important for the 15 percent of American families who have a child with a chronic illness. Children who suffer from acute illnesses have been shown to recover more quickly if a parent can stay home. But without a national law, parents have to rely on employers’ consideration and low-income workers are less likely to have benefits like paid leave: “If you’re low-income, you’re kind of doubly disadvantaged,” Waldfogel remarked.
The United States is exceptional in not having a national policy providing paid parental lead. Parental leave policy is left up to the states, so provisions vary. Benefits from the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) are relatively short term and there is a clear education bias in coverage and eligibility. For example, from a recent survey of workers, about 65 percent covered and eligible under the act were college graduates, but for those with a high school education or less, only 44 percent were covered. Other countries provide 18 months of job-protected parental leave, of which a portion is paid for. Norway’s generous parental leave policies have led to improvements in postneonatal infant mortality.
Employees have been their own advocates for flexible work arrangements, which Waldfogel declared “the new wave of work-family policies” since they are one of the most sought-after benefits. The share of U.S. workers with access to flex time rose from 29 percent in 1992 to 43 percent in 2002. Spearheaded by the Sloan Foundation, flexible work arrangements and their effects on employee well-being, and in turn, their effects on family well-being, are being studied more closely. A 2010 White House report examined the economics of workplace flexibility. But flex hours are not available for all workers, in contrast to European Union countries where parents and all employees have the right to ask for part-time or flexible hours.
Like parental leave, child care is also skewed by parental income. Low-income children benefit the most developmentally from quality of care, but most child care programs in the United Sates are privately run, and so low-income parents pay a higher share of costs relative to higher-income parents. Waldfogel noted that the United States is one of the only advanced industrialized countries that does not provide universal preschool in the year or two before school entry. “The message is: You get what you pay for,” she said.