Support for Working Families

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.


TAP Online's Special Segment on Children and

color="darkred">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, href="">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. It also raises concerns about the quality of
care in children's youngest and most developmentally sensitive years. These
concerns are particularly acute in the United States, where experts conclude that
nearly two-thirds of the mostly private nonparental child care settings provide
only fair-to-poor care.

The private-child-care solution to the work-family dilemma creates another, often
overlooked problem: It impoverishes a large, low-wage child care work force
dominated by women. Child care workers in the United States are among the most
poorly paid members of the work force, averaging less than $7 per hour in
earnings and usually working without employment benefits or realistic
opportunities for career advancement.

While parents in the United States are left largely to their own devices, parents
in most European welfare states can count on child care and parental-leave
benefits to help them juggle work in the market and in the home. Although these
policies have not fully resolved the problems of gender inequality and parental
overburdening, they provide encouraging lessons about how government can help
parents strike a balance between caring and earning.

Key to realizing greater gender equality in both the workplace and the home is
recognizing that mothers and fathers alike deserve support in their market and
caregiving roles. For a number of years, feminist scholars in Europe and the
United States have debated the meaning of a woman-friendly welfare state. A
universal-breadwinner perspective calls for welfare-state provisions that support
and equalize women's employment attachments--for example, by providing extensive
public child care. An opposing caregiver-parity perspective calls for provisions
that grant women "the right to time for care" and remunerate women for care work
performed in the home through generous maternity pay and other caregiver

Neither perspective fully resolves the tension between work and family life
while promoting gender equality. Both fail to provide a satisfying vision of the
welfare state--in part because they do not address the issue of fathers as
caregivers. Women's widespread assumption of greater market responsibilities has
not been equally matched by fathers' assumption of child care responsibilities in
the home. Although men's involvement in caregiving appears to be on the rise,
Bianchi estimates that married fathers in the United States spent just 45 percent
of the time their wives spent on caregiving in 1998--an increase of only 15
percentage points since 1965.

A bridge between the universal-breadwinner and caregiver-parity perspectives may
lie in social policies that promote what British welfare-state scholar Rosemary
Crompton calls the "dual earner/dual carer" society. This is a society in which
men and women engage symmetrically in both paid work in the labor market and
caregiving work in the home. Central to the dual earner/dual carer solution is
the recognition that both mothers and fathers should have the right and
opportunity to engage in market and caregiving work without incurring poverty in
terms of money or time. For families with very young children (say, younger than
age three), mothers and fathers would have the right to take substantial time off
from market work to care for their children, without loss of income. For families
with children from age three to school age, both parents would have the right to
engage in flexible and reduced-hour employment, and they would have access to
affordable, high-quality substitute child care.

This solution assumes that men would re-allocate substantial portions of time
from the labor market to the home while their children are young. Hence, as
American political theorist href="">Nancy
Fraser has suggested, "men [would] become more like women are now" in the
allocation of their time.

The sweeping transformations of market and gender relations necessary to achieve
a gender-egalitarian dual earner/dual carer society are obviously not imminent.
But the steep rise in maternal employment in recent years and the more modest
rise in men's caregiving time suggest that some form of dual earner/dual carer
arrangement is already the reality for many families in the industrialized world.
Given this reality, what can government do to help such families now and to
promote greater gender equality in the future? The United States is arguably a
leader in rhetorical support for the family and for equal employment
opportunities--but it's a clear laggard in making the rhetoric meaningful. U.S.
policy makers could take a lesson from the European welfare states, which finance
extensive parental leaves during the earliest years of children's lives and
provide high-quality early-childhood education and care services for older
preschool children. Increasingly, these countries also incorporate incentives
that encourage men to assume a larger share of caregiving work in the home.

Family Leave

Although their family support programs vary substantially, nearly all of the
industrialized welfare states provide generous maternity, paternity, or other
parental leave during the first year of childhood, typically funded through some
combination of national sickness, maternity, and other social-insurance funds.
The most substantial leave benefits are provided in two Scandinavian countries
that have consolidated maternity, paternity, and other parental-leave schemes.
Norwegian parents are entitled to share 52 weeks of leave with an 80 percent wage
replacement (or 42 weeks with full wage replacement) following the birth of a
child, while Swedish parents can share a full year of leave with nearly full wage
replacement, followed by three additional months at a lower rate. Most
continental European countries provide somewhat shorter maternity leaves--usually
three to five months--but they pay relatively high replacement rates: 80 percent
to 100 percent.

Even beyond the child's first birthday, parents in some European countries
have rights to partial leave and reduced-hour employment. In Denmark, for
example, mothers have a right to 28 weeks of maternity leave after childbirth
with high wage replacement, and fathers have a right to two weeks of paternity
leave; once these leaves are exhausted, the parents can share 10 weeks of
parental leave with high wage replacement, and then each parent is entitled to 13
weeks of child care leave at 80 percent of the parental-leave benefit level.
Finnish parents can choose to stay on leave for up to three years while receiving
a low, flat-rate benefit. And Swedish parents have the right to work as little as
six hours per week, with job protection, until their children are eight years

Although generous leave policies have economic and social benefits for families
with very young children, they can create new forms of gender inequality. The
total percentage of paid parental-leave days taken by fathers amounts to less
than 10 percent across the European welfare states and less than 3 percent in
many. Because leaves are taken overwhelmingly by mothers, many women pay a price
for their long absences from the labor market in the form of lost human capital
and career advancement.

Several of the Scandinavian countries are addressing the gender gap in
parental-leave taking by creating incentives for fathers to take the leave to
which they are entitled. The most critical of these incentives is high
wage-replacement rates. Because men tend to have higher wages than women, in the
absence of full wage replacement it often makes economic sense for couples to
decide that the mother should withdraw from the labor market. The 80 percent to
100 percent wage-replacement rates in most of the European countries reduce the
economic disincentive for fathers to take full advantage of leave benefits.

A second important gender-equalizing policy is the granting of individual or
nontransferable leave benefits to fathers as well as to mothers. In Norway and
Sweden, four weeks of parental leave are reserved explicitly for fathers; in
Denmark fathers have a right to two weeks of paternity leave. In all three
countries, leave time reserved for the father but not taken is lost to the
family. These "use or lose" provisions encourage parents to participate more
equally in leave-supported caregiving. The Scandinavian welfare states have taken
active steps to promote fathers' use of leave benefits. In the late 1990s, the
Swedish government engaged in a public campaign to educate employers and unions
about how fathers' parental leave can be good not just for families but for work
organizations and society. Norwegian policy expert Anne Lise Ellingsaeter reports
that in her country government officials are now pushing fatherhood onto the
political agenda: "While employment for women was the main issue of policies in
the 1980s," she suggests, the 1990s brought in "the caring father, and thus the
domestication of men." The emphasis on fathers is expanding beyond the
Scandinavian countries as well. Italy, for example, instituted use-or-lose days
in 2000.

The European welfare states also provide instructive lessons about how to finance
parental-leave benefits. Nearly all of the European leave programs are funded
through either social-insurance schemes or general tax revenues. None relies on
mandating employers to provide wage replacement for their own employees. Those
countries in which social-insurance funds draw heavily on employer contributions
do not "experience-rate"--that is, adjust contributions to reflect the number of
leave takers at the firm level. These financing mechanisms reduce employer
resistance by spreading the cost among employers and by supplementing employer
contributions with general revenue funds. By reducing the cost to individual
employers, these mechanisms also minimize the risk that employers will
discriminate against potential leave takers who might otherwise be seen as
unusually expensive employees.

How costly are these leave schemes? Spending on maternity, paternity, and
parental leave is substantial and is rising in nearly all the European welfare
states. Costs relative to population and gross domestic product (GDP) are
surprisingly modest, however. As of the middle 1990s, annual family leave
expenditures per employed woman (in 1990 U.S. dollars) were about $900 in Sweden
and Finland, and about $600 to $700 in Norway and Denmark. France spent a more
moderate $375 per employed woman. The higher-spending Scandinavian countries
invested approximately 0.7 percent to 1.0 percent of GDP in family leave, while
France spent 0.35 percent.

Child Care

The European welfare states provide another critical form of support for dual
earner/dual carer families and for gender equality in the form of high-quality,
public early-childhood education and care. They have developed two distinct
models. The model in the Scandinavian countries is an integrated system of child
care centers and organized family-day-care schemes serving children from birth to
school age, managed by social-welfare or educational authorities. Nearly all
employed parents have access to a place in the public child care system with
little or no waiting time, and enrollment rates are high. In Sweden and Denmark,
for example, one-third to one-half of children under age three are in some form
of full-day, publicly supported care, along with 72 percent to 82 percent of
children between the ages of three and five.

The model developed by the continental countries of France and Belgium is a
two-phase system of child care. For younger children, full-day child care centers
(creches) and some publicly supervised family-day-care schemes are
provided under the authority of the social-welfare system. Beginning at age two
and a half or three, children are served in full-day preprimary programs, the
├ęcoles maternelles, within the educational system. Enrollment of
young children in creches is high (30 percent in Belgium and 24 percent in
France); it's nearly universal in the ├ęcoles maternelles for
preschool-age children.

Although a large child care sector would seem to be unambiguously positive for
gender equality in employment, it can exacerbate inequality if it impoverishes
women who work as child care providers. In the European countries, although the
child care sector is also mainly women, a large share of child care workers are
public-sector employees. As such, they benefit from the good public-sector wages
and benefits common in Europe. Relatively high wages for child care workers are
tied to high standards for the education and training of child care
professionals, who are typically required to have three to five years of
vocational or university training. Higher educational standards have benefits
that extend beyond the economic welfare of female child care workers. They also
increase the quality of care that children receive.

Like leave benefits, early-childhood education and care services in European
countries are financed largely by the government. Funding is provided by
national, state or regional, and local authorities, with the national share
typically dominant in services for preschool-age children. Care for very young
children and, to a lesser extent, for preschool children is partially funded
through parental co-payments that cover an average of 15 percent to 25 percent of
costs. Because co-payments are scaled to family income, lower-income families
typically pay nothing and more affluent families pay no more than 10 percent to
15 percent of their income.

Child care expenditures are large and growing in the European welfare states
but--like leave expenditures--are modest in per capita terms. Total spending on
direct child care in the mid-1990s was about $2,000 per child under age 15 in
Sweden and Denmark; it served a large share of all children under the age of
seven and many school-aged children in after-school care. In France expenditures
totaled a little over $1,000 per child under age 15; they served nearly all
three-to-five-year-olds and about one-quarter of children under age three. These
investments in early-childhood education and care constituted about 1.6 percent
to 2.2 percent of GDP in Sweden and Denmark, and about 1 percent in France.

On all fronts, the United States lags behind Europe to a remarkable extent.
The United States stands out as one of only a few countries in the entire world
that fail to provide any national program of paid maternity leave. Until 1993
this country lacked even job protections for women at the time of childbirth.
With the passage of the Family and
Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
, workers in firms with at least 50 employees were
granted rights to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave each year for
childbirth or adoption or to care for a seriously ill family member. The
exclusion of small firms leaves an estimated one-half of the U.S. work force
without even this rudimentary benefit. Additionally, the absence of wage
replacement presents an obvious problem: The congressionally established href="">U.S.
Commission on Leave reports that 64 percent of employees who need but do not
take FMLA-based leave indicate that they cannot afford the loss of wages.

Some families in the United States receive short periods of paid leave through
employer-based disability benefits. Five states provide public Temporary
Disability Insurance (TDI) programs. Because the href="">Pregnancy Discrimination Act
applies to these programs, new mothers have a right to short periods of paid
leave if they have either private or public disability benefits. As of the early
1990s, however, only an estimated one-quarter of U.S. working women had coverage
under these laws. The Institute for Women's Policy
found that weekly benefits paid through the TDI programs average
only $170 to $200 and that the duration of benefit claims ranged from five to 13

The United States also stands out among industrialized countries for its paucity
of public child care assistance. Unlike most of Europe, it has never embraced a
national system for universal provision, funding, or regulation of
early-childhood education and care. More than 40 percent of American children
under age five spend 35 hours or more per week in nonparental care, and another
25 percent spend 15 to 35 hours.

Substitute care in this country is overwhelmingly private in both provision and
financing. The U.S. government spends about $200 on direct child care assistance
per child under age 15--about one-tenth of the spending in Sweden and one-fifth
of that in France. Assistance is provided through two primary mechanisms: (1)
means-tested subsidies, available on a limited basis for low-income families with
employed parents, and (2) early-childhood education programs (mostly through the
means-tested Head Start program) and state prekindergarten programs. Children in
the United States now routinely start public school at a young age; about
one-half of four-year-olds and 89 percent of five-year-olds are in (usually)
part-day prekindergarten or kindergarten programs. But as few as 5 percent of
children age three and younger, and of older preschool children outside
prekindergarten and kindergarten, are in any form of publicly subsidized or
provided care.

Some observers justify miserly child care expenditures in the United States by
pointing to tax benefits for families who use child care. The federal government
and several state governments exempt a portion of child care expenses from
personal income taxes. While the federal Child and Dependent Care Credit is now
used by a large number of families, low-income families with no tax liability
receive no benefits, and the actual benefit for others is low. As of the
mid-1990s, the federal tax credit expenditures totaled about $47 per child under
the age of 15.

Unfortunately, the United States gets what it pays for. Minimally regulated
private-child-care arrangements provide uneven and generally low-quality care. A
research team from the href="">National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development recently estimated that only
11 percent of child care settings for children age three and younger meet
standards for "excellent" care. In part, quality is poor because the care is
provided by a minimally educated and inadequately trained work force. According
to data collected by Marcy Whitebook of the href="">Center for the Child Care Workforce, some
22 percent to 34 percent of teachers in regulated child care centers and family
child care settings do not have a high school diploma; Ellen Galinsky, president
of the Families and Work Institute, reports that in unregulated
family-and-relative child care settings, between 33 percent and 46 percent of
caregivers have not completed high school.

Child care providers are a poorly educated work force in large part because
families cannot afford to pay more highly trained professionals. Full-time child
care for a four-year-old averages between $3,500 and $6,000 per year--more than
college tuition at many state universities. Yet despite this expense, child care
workers often earn poverty-level wages. Whitebook estimates that they earn an
average of $6.12 per hour--slightly less than parking lot attendants and
one-third the average salary of flight attendants.

Many of these poorly paid child care workers are women of color. And many are
immigrants from developing countries who are in search of better economic
prospects--and who often leave the care of their own children to even poorer
women in their home country. [See Arlie Russell Hochschild, " href="../V11-4/hochschild-a.html">The Nanny Chain," TAP, January 3,

Although the European welfare states could
teach the United States much about child care, they have not completely solved
the dilemma of providing gender-egalitarian support for dual earner/dual carer
families. The supply of child care for children under age three is very limited
in many countries, and for older preschool children in some. Also, both short-
and longer-term leaves are still used overwhelmingly by mothers. A fully
egalitarian package of family support policies is not completely realized even in
the progressive Scandinavian countries, but there at least the framework for such
policies is in place.

Learning across borders may have considerable cachet in contemporary policy
debates, but drawing lessons from the European welfare states has fallen out of
favor. Resistance to lessons from overseas has been fueled by vivid press reports
of the collapse of the European welfare states. American reporters, particularly
in the mainstream print and financial media, have been preoccupied in recent
years with the death of the European welfare state. In 1992 the Los Angeles
noted that "Britain ... finished dismantling much of its welfare system
in the 1980s under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher." The San Francisco
reported in 1993 that "nowhere is the dismantling of the social
security net more drastic than in Sweden, ... [though] similar retreats from the
expansive days of social democracy are under way in virtually every European
Community nation." And in 1995 BusinessWeek reported that "France ... in
recent weeks has been at the center of what may well be the last great
Continental convulsion in this century: the dismantling of the European welfare

The Popular Welfare State

As Mark Twain is said to have observed about premature rumors of his demise,
reports of the death of the European welfare state turn out to be greatly
exaggerated. Spending trends in Europe suggest that while some countries have
taken steps to curtail certain areas of program growth, overall social spending
continued to rise throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Growth in expenditure was
particularly steep in programs that support families and children. Between 1980
and the mid-1990s, per-child spending on family policy in the Western European
countries increased by 52 percent. Within the arena of family policy, the growth
in expenditures on maternity and parental leaves was quite high: Across Western
Europe, average spending per employed woman doubled during this period.

Rising investments indicate that political support for family policies is
strong in the European countries--a finding that is confirmed by public opinion
research. Family policies are popular mostly because they are universally
available. Family leave and child care have been institutionalized as
middle-class benefits that support new parents, relieve parents of the financial
burden of private child care, and provide high-quality early education for
children--all without stigmatizing or isolating recipients. The public sees these
programs as providing broader social benefits as well. Cross-national policy
research has linked generous leave and child care benefits in Europe to much
lower child poverty rates than in the United States, and to less disruption in
employment among mothers with young children.

Steadily growing investments in family policies suggest that the European
welfare states remain committed to supporting dual earner/dual carer families.
Translating these policies to the U.S. context remains challenging. One obvious
concern is expense. One way to approach the question of cost is through a thought
experiment: What if the United States were to commit the same share of its GDP to
family policy as the Europeans do? This country currently spends about 0.2
percent of its GDP on child care and a negligible amount on leave. In contrast,
France spends about 1.4 percent of its GDP on a generous policy package of family
leave and early-childhood education and care. If the same spending share were
applied to the U.S. GDP, we'd be looking at about $100 billion annually. As of
the mid-1990s, U.S. expenditures on early-childhood education and care totaled
only about $15 billion. Thus, in order to provide a package of leave and child
care benefits similar to the one available to French families, we would need an
additional $85 billion per year.

This figure very likely represents a high-end estimate. The actual bill would
probably be lower than these figures suggest since children generally start
school at a younger age in the United States than in France. It would also be
lower if financing similar benefits consumed a smaller share of the GDP in the
strong U.S. economy. Costs would be lower still if policies were partially
means-tested or taxed for higher-income families. And recent research suggests
that some of those expenditures would be recouped by productivity gains
associated with lower employee turnover, fewer work absences, and a less
stressed-out work force.

Nevertheless, it is clear that comprehensive family policies would require
substantial new investments in the United States. Whether these investments are
affordable is a relative question. It is easy to find examples of spending that
might be used to offset new investments in family policy. According to the href="">Center for Popular Economics, federal aid to
U.S. corporations amounts to $75 billion to $200 billion a year. Former Assistant
Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb and the Center
for Defense Information
(founded by retired generals and admirals) have
argued that the U.S. military budget could be cut by more than $150 billion a
year without sacrificing high levels of military readiness. The United States
could also find family policy revenues closer to home, by capping a variety of
federal tax benefits that primarily reach our most affluent citizens. The
mortgage interest deduction alone costs nearly $60 billion a year, local property
tax deductions for homeowners cost $14 billion, and the exclusion of capital
gains on inherited property costs $25 billion. [See Nancy Folbre's article " href="folbre-n.html">Leave No Child Behind?" on page 20.]

Providing real support for America's working families would require an exercise
of collective political will. Fortunately, there are some hopeful signs. As more
and more families find themselves squeezed for time between the demands of the
workplace and the home, support for more expansive family policies may be
growing, especially as parents find their budgets squeezed by the price of even
mediocre child care. A recent survey conducted for the think tank href="">Zero To Three found that four in five
adults support "paid parental leave that allows working parents of very young
babies to stay home from work to care for their children." Policy officials are
taking at least tentative steps in the direction of policy expansion. Forty-two
states now have some form of prekindergarten services. In June 2000, the U.S.
Department of Labor issued regulations that allow states to extend unemployment
insurance to mothers out of work owing to childbirth. By cross-national
standards, these developments are meager. But they may signal a welcome shift in
the United States from rhetoric to action in the valuing of children, families,
and equal opportunities for women.

For more information: href="">