Support for Working Families

By Gornick, Janet C.; Meyers, Marcia K. | The American Prospect, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Support for Working Families


Gornick, Janet C., Meyers, Marcia K., The American Prospect


What the United States Can Learn from Europe

Four decades of steady growth in female employment have gone a long way toward closing the job gap between women and men in the industrialized countries. One of the most striking changes in Europe and the United States has been the rise in employment among mothers with young children. Nearly 85 percent of U.S. mothers employed before childbearing now return to work before their child's first birthday. Although this is an encouraging trend from the perspective of gender equality in the marketplace, it is raising a new and difficult question about arrangements in the home: If everyone is working in the market, who is caring for the children?

Many parents in the industrialized countries find themselves navigating uncertain new terrain between a society that expects women to bear the primary responsibility for caring in the home and a society that expects, and increasingly requires, all adults to be at work in the market. Mothers and fathers are struggling to craft private solutions to this problem. But rather than resolving the question of who will care for children when everyone is on the job, these private solutions often exacerbate gender inequality, overburden the parents, and ultimately lead to poor-quality child care.

Although such problems are not unique to the United States, they may be more acute in this country because families have access to so little public support. The nation's policy makers and opinion leaders have been preoccupied in recent years with the promotion of "family values." Compared with most of Europe, however, this country provides exceptionally meager help to children, their parents, and the workers--mostly women--who care for other people's children. And despite the current preoccupation with getting everyone--particularly poor mothers--into the work force, the United States does much less than European countries to remove employment barriers for women with young children.

THE PROBLEM OF PRIVATE SOLUTIONS

One private solution to child care adopted by many parents in the United States is the combining of parental caregiving and part-time employment. Because the parents who work reduced hours are overwhelmingly mothers--only 42 percent of American women work full-time year round--this solution exacerbates gender inequality in both the market and the caring spheres. Part-time work schedules, career interruptions, and intermittent employment relegate many women to the least remunerative and rewarding jobs; and these employment patterns contribute to wage penalties that persist long after the children are grown. In dual-parent families with children below school age, married mothers' labor-market income accounts for, at most, a third of families' total labor-market income across the industrialized countries; in the United States, it accounts for only one quarter.

Another private solution is the combining of substitute care for children and full-time parental employment. Although this works well for some families, many others find themselves overburdened by the demands of the market and the home. Women in particular often work the equivalent of a double shift, combining full-time paid work with unpaid caregiving. In a recent article in Demography, Suzanne Bianchi concludes that despite the increase in mothers' labor-market activities, their time spent with their children remained nearly constant between 1965 and 1998. Where do employed mothers get the time? The data suggest that they do less of everything else, including housework, volunteering, engaging in leisure activities, and sleeping.

More parental employment also means children spend much more time in substitute care. Recent increases in the use of child care in the United States have been particularly sharp for children below age one, 44 percent of whom are now in some form of nonparental child care. The extensive reliance on substitute child care imposes a heavy financial burden, consuming as much as 35 percent of household income for poor working families. …

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