To judge from public debates on everything from marriage promotion to educational standards, the United States is exceptionally concerned with the well-being of children. But as American families struggle to balance work and family demands, our government is doing little to help. Parents in countries such as Sweden and France also balance work and family responsibilities. In fact, rates of maternal employment are as high or higher in these countries than in the United States. But parents in these countries are managing competing demands with significantly more help from government.
Three areas of work-family reconciliation policies are particularly important: paid parenting leaves that allow mothers and fathers to care for infants without forfeiting their jobs or income; working time policies that increase options for high-quality, reduced-hour, and part-time employment; and publicly subsidized or provided early-childhood care and education programs.
All of the western European countries (and even nearby Canada) provide maternity, paternity, and/or parental leave during the first year or more after the birth or adoption of a child, typically funded through some combination of national sickness, maternity, and other social-insurance funds. Throughout much of Europe, normal workweeks have been shortened to 35 to 39 hours, and legislation and/or collective-bargaining agreements prohibit employers from treating part-time workers less favorably than “comparable full-time workers.” In western Europe, policies that protect parental time are coupled with high-quality, public early-childhood education and care. Together, these policies support the provision of safe, developmentally nurturing care for children from birth until the start of primary school.
In Sweden, parents have a right to 15 months of paid parental leave that can be shared between mothers and fathers; parents also have a statutory right to work six hours per day (at prorated pay) until their children turn 8. Leave benefits are coupled with an entitlement to public child care for all children from the end of their parents' leave periods, providing affordable alternatives to full-time parental care. Nearly half of children between the ages of 1 and 2 are in public care, as are 82 percent of those between the ages of 3 and 5, and virtually all 6-year-olds. Quality standards, set nationally by the Ministry of Education and Science and adapted to local communities by municipalities, ensure high-quality care, which is provided by well-trained workers who earn wages at about the national average for all women workers.
France and several other continental European countries combine somewhat shorter periods of paid leave with dual systems of public child care (for the under-3s) and preschool (from 3 until school age). In the French policy package, mothers are entitled to 16 weeks of paid leave at the birth of first and second children (26 weeks at the birth of subsequent children), with 100-percent wage replacement; fathers have a right to 11 days of paid paternity leave. French parents are also entitled to share three years of job-protected parental leave with low flat-rate benefits. Leave benefits are coupled with a dual system of early child care and later public preschool. About 20 percent of children aged 1 and 2 attend public crèche or other subsidized care; from the ages of 2 1/2 to 3, children are entitled to a place in free public preschools (écoles maternelles), and nearly all children attend. Quality standards are set by national policy and curricula, and teachers in French écoles have the equivalent of graduate training in early education and earn wages that are above the average for all employed women.
Work-family reconciliation polices vary across the European countries, reflecting both political priorities and cultural norms about families and children. Countries such as France, Belgium, and Italy emphasize school readiness in the years before primary school, while the Nordic countries integrate care and education throughout childhood. Even the educationally oriented models of continental Europe vary in pedagogical approach between the highly structured écoles maternelles of France and the child-directed Reggio Emilia approach in Italy.
What is common is the concern with the quality and the developmental focus of early care and education. Governments play an active role in ensuring quality through program standards, curricular design, quality assessments, and staffing standards. Staff are generally highly trained and, particularly for those working with 3- and 4-year-old children, meet educational standards that are comparable to those of public-school teachers. Staff compensation is correspondingly high, particularly for professionals working with children over 3 -- and, in the Nordic countries, for those working with all children under school age.
What does it cost France and Sweden to provide this level of care for children? And could we afford it here in the United States? We estimate that if the United States were to offer an extremely generous package of paid family leave and child care -- combining, say, Swedish family-leave policies with French child-care provisions -- the United States would need to spend between 1 percent and 1.5 percent of the gross domestic product, or about $115 billion to $175 billion per year, depending on parents' level of use. This level of spending would be comparable to what Sweden and France now invest.
Whether these costs are a lot or a little to spend on the well-being of children depends on what we expect to gain from the investment. The European experience, as well as extensive empirical research conducted largely in the United States, suggests that the benefits could be great. There is now substantial evidence that high-quality early-childhood education has benefits for children's school readiness. There is also worrisome evidence that extensive time in poor-quality care may be harmful for very young children. These benefits and risks are particularly great for low-income children -- the very children who are also those most likely to miss out, in the U.S. system, on high-quality, educationally oriented programs in the years before the start of school. Given the relatively poor academic performance of America's children, in cross-national perspective, the educational advantages provided by the European systems cannot be overlooked.
The European experience suggests that these work-family reconciliation policies have other social benefits as well. The United States has experimented with mostly private solutions for work-family reconciliation, and the results are not good. In comparison with our counterparts in a number of European countries, we have high levels of gender inequalities in paid and unpaid work, very low-quality child care, exceptionally poorly paid child-care workers, and high child-care bills for families. The distribution of these outcomes is also highly regressive. In the United States, families and workers with the fewest resources have access to the most limited employment-based family-leave provisions. The poorest families spend the largest share of their disposable income on substitute child care. And children in the poorest families are the least likely to be in formal care settings (as opposed to family care), and, if they are, in settings of lower quality.
In the most well-developed European systems, work-family reconciliation policies are universal, inclusive, and progressive in their distribution of costs. Use of parental leave is nearly universal among women and gaining acceptance among men; nearly all children are enrolled in public child care that is seen to promote both early learning and social integration across economic and other divides. The universality of these programs and their obvious benefits for children help explain high and continuing political support, even in times of economic strain. Between 1980 and the mid-1990s, per-child spending on family policy in the western European countries increased by 52 percent. Expansion of work-family reconciliation policies continues to be encouraged, and in some cases required, by the European Union. Robust political support for these programs suggests that our counterparts in much of Europe recognize that spending for early-childhood programs is an investment that pays dividends for children, their parents, and society as a whole.
Marcia K. Meyers is an associate professor of social work and public affairs at the University of Washington. Janet C. Gornick is an associate professor of political science at the City University of New York's Graduate Center and Baruch College. Their book, Families That Work: Policies for Reconciling Parenthood and Employment, was published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2003.