Spotlight Exclusives

Work-Family Balance is Critical for Fighting Poverty

Judith Warner, Center for American Progress Judith Warner, Center for American Progress, posted on

Say “work-family balance,” and the conversation immediately turns to the travails of well-educated professionals struggling to climb the corporate ladder. Soon we’re on the topic of “having it all”—the province of the soy-chai-latte-drinking Lululemon crowd. After decades of this sort of talk, the very real problems of working families have been reduced to what sounds like a yoga pose—the “balancing act,” an exercise in self-improvement for the privileged elite.

The trivialization is insulting. And as a practical matter, it’s injurious, too. After all, if the whole notion of work-family balance is a rich-girly pipe dream, then there’s no reason to spend public dollars on making it come true.

In reality, however, “having it all” – i.e. the ability to earn a living while raising and caring for children – is first and foremost, a low-income women’s issue. And a slew of time-tested policies could make that much more modest dream a reality.

For all the attention we’ve given in the past decade to highly educated women “opting out” of the workforce, it’s low-income women who are the most frequently pushed out of work due to caregiving challenges. They’re the most likely to have jobs with unpredictable schedules, where “flexibility” is meted out according to the whims of their employers. They’re the least likely to have access to paid family leave, paid sick days, and high-quality affordable childcare. As a result, they’re the most likely to lose their jobs when they have family caregiving needs. And their families disproportionately suffer from the income shocks – and long-term impediments to wealth accumulation – that come from employment interruptions.

Low-income women are also the ones who stand to most benefit if the United States joins with the rest of the advanced industrialized world in adopting policies that help working mothers stay employed. The US is an outlier among advanced economies in our unwillingness to embrace the realities of contemporary family life and provide policy supports that improve the lives and economic prospects of working families. As a result, we’re now the only industrialized nation that does not guarantee paid time off for working mothers to care for a new child. We’re one of the only high-income nations that does not guarantee workers paid sick leave or access to such supports as family-friendly flexible scheduling.

Access to what policies do exist here – primarily through the beneficence of private employers – divides sharply by income level. High-income workers are more than five times as likely to have access to paid family leave compared with low-income workers. High wage-earning women are almost six times as likely as low-wage earning women to have access to paid sick days. And, because of the extreme difficulty of accessing needed supports for high-quality childcare, families with incomes below the federal poverty line spend about four times as great a percentage of their income on child care as do other families.

Three states – California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island – currently provide workers with paid family leave. Thanks to the success of California and New Jersey’s paid leave programs, implemented in 2004 and 2009, respectively, there is by now a considerable body of research showing how access to work-family policy can improve the economic fortunes of low-income families.

One California study showed that nearly 84 percent of workers in jobs paying $20 an hour or less who took advantage of the state leave program were able to receive at least half of their usual pay while on leave, compared to only 31 percent of workers who took family leave without making use of the state policy. Those workers were also better able to keep their jobs than were those who did not use the state program, even though California’s paid leave policy does not provide job-protection for leave-takers.

Another recently released report culled data from more than 500,000 households in 18 OECD countries and found that the existence of longer paid parental leave (as well as more generous family allowances) were associated with lower levels of poverty among all households with children. Parental leave was particularly important in helping single mothers stay employed, and had an even greater effect on reducing poverty in their households than in those headed by couples or single fathers.

Especially relevant for the US – where public opinion has for so long been swayed against “big government” tax-and-spending on social programs – is the compelling evidence that the costs of these reforms are greatly mediated by the widespread benefits of keeping mothers employed.

Studies have shown that women in states with paid family leave are less likely than those in other states to turn to public assistance after the birth of a child. (And new mothers who are able to access paid maternity leave benefits through state temporary disability insurance programs  — which have repeatedly served as the precursor to state paid family leave programs – are 53 percent less likely than those not living in such states to make use of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the year after their child’s birth.)

Add to these savings the intangible rewards of providing young children with consistent parental presence, which has been proven to have benefits (and the lack thereof to have costs) that multiply over the course of a lifetime, and the sum of the evidence is clear: Work-family policies, available for all, can be one of the most potent tools in our arsenal for fighting poverty. It’s time to rewrite the narrative about “having it all” to reflect the realities of families struggling to have enough.

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Judith Warner is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where she works on women’s advancement and economic security, and author of the New York Times bestseller Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. Follow her on Twitter at @judithwarner.

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