Europe, Canada ahead of US in creating family-friendly policies


Many American parents know all too well that they are chronically short of time, or money, or both. And many American women know that they face wrenching choices between motherhood and careers. But few know how much more difficult it is to reconcile work and family demands in the United States than in many other industrialized countries. A pair of researchers believes that American families with children would be stunned if they knew what kind of social policies and support 10 Western European nations and Canada offer their working families.

In a new book, "Families That Work: Policies for Reconciling Parenthood and Employment," Janet Gornick of City College of New York and Marcia Meyers of the University of Washington contend that the United States is long on talk and short on action when it comes to promoting family-friendly policies and equal career opportunities for women who have children.

"American women and families are struggling," said Meyers, a UW professor of social work and public affairs. "In the majority of families with children, both parents or the single parent are balancing the demands of parenthood and the workplace. The question of 'who will take care of the kids when everyone is at work' is a social dilemma. But American parents are left pretty much to their own devices to come up with answers.

Gornick and Meyers argue that these private solutions are not very good for parents or for children.

"More than half of women lose or quit their jobs when they become pregnant. Families are spending more for child care than they do for their children's college tuition. About one-third of couples and half of single parents are working nights or weekends and tag-team parenting," said Meyers.

"Parents should be demanding more from government. The main reason they are not is probably that they are just too worn out by long hours of caring for children and earning a living."

The authors point out that parents are contributing to society by raising healthy children, and that society should help defray some of the resulting costs. The United States doesn't have to reinvent the wheel to develop work and family reconciliation policies that are good for children and promote greater equality between mothers and fathers.

Meyers and Gornick, who have been studying social policy in America and abroad for more than a decade, highlight several countries including France, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Canada that provide workable models. Although the details vary, these countries provide some combination of job protection and paid maternal and paternal leave on the birth of a child, provisions for reduced hour and high quality part-time work, at least four weeks of paid vacation each year, and access to free or very inexpensive public early childhood education and quality child care.

The situation is very different in the U.S., which lacks these programs. In comparison to their European counterparts, American parents work more hours outside the home, are more likely to lose their jobs or income at childbirth, and pay more for what is often worse quality child care. Without viable alternatives, American parents are also more likely than those in many other countries to face a tradeoff between good care for children and equal career opportunities for mothers.

Meyers and Gornick propose a package of family leave, working time, and child care policies for the U.S. that would support what they call "dual earner-dual carer" families in which parents share work in the home and the market. These policies would provide parents with more time for caregiving work, provide children with more parental care, and reduce career and wage penalties for women who have children.

"We provide social protections for people at the end of life with Social Security," said Meyers. "And we recognize a collective responsibility for children once they reach school-age. The biggest gap in the system is support for families when they need help the most when children are very young."

Can the United States afford what Meyers and Gornick are proposing?

"We are the richest country in the world, so it is a matter of priorities rather than resources," said Meyers. "The cost of what we are talking about six months of fully paid leave for every employed mother and father at the time of childbirth and high-quality early childhood education and care for every child is about 1.5 percent of the gross domestic product. That's about 44 percent of what we spend on public primary and secondary education a year. It also is about what Europeans spend on similar programs.

"Another way to look at the cost is that it is about one half of what we gave away with President Bush's tax cut. So it is not a question of whether we can but a question of whether we are willing to spend this on our families and children."

"Families That Work" is published by the Russell Sage Foundation.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
    Published on All rights reserved.