This issue of The Future of Children describes the challenges parents face in taking care of family responsibilities while also holding down a job and explores the implications of those challenges for child and family well-being. As children grow and develop, parents are the hub in a system of care to meet their needs, a system that includes extended family, preschools, schools, health care providers, community organizations, and others, but in which parents play the lead role. Often these same working parents have additional care responsibilities for other family members—in particular, the elderly—and are, for them too, the hub around which other caregivers, services, and programs revolve.
Work-family challenges are as varied as the families that must deal with them, and they change in nature over time. Some working parents are better positioned than others to meet their family’s care needs because they have higher incomes, more access to informal support from family members and others, or more support from employers or public policies. But no families, even middle- and high-income families, are immune from the challenge of balancing work and family obligations. Employers’ needs and capacities are tremendously varied as well, particularly given the large role in the U.S. labor market of small, often family-owned businesses. Such wide variation suggests that meeting the work-family challenge will require flexibility and an array of options, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
The rising shares of women in the workforce and of families headed by single parents have made work-family issues especially prominent and challenging, as more employees, both men and women, face care responsibilities at home and fewer have a stay-at-home spouse to manage them. The work-family challenge has also been heightened by an increase in longevity that has boosted the share of the population that is elderly. Although many elderly Americans are healthy (and indeed provide assistance to their adult children and grandchildren), others require care and support from their family members.
Although these demographic trends have been observed to some extent in every modern economy, the challenges of meeting work and family obligations are particularly problematic in the United States. Simply put, U.S. work and family policies have not been updated to reflect the new reality of American family life. The social welfare system in the [End Page 3] United States, more so than in other countries, is designed around the idea that government assistance is a last resort, provided only after families have first used available family, community, and employer supports, or in cases where such supports do not exist. Economists generally endorse limited government involvement but identify several types of situations where government may need to step in. For example, in cases where the benefits of a policy would accrue not just to the individual family or employer but to society more generally, it is in the public’s interest for government to provide those benefits. That principle is the rationale for universal public education, where the United States has historically been a world leader, although its edge in higher education is eroding and it has fallen behind other countries in preschool education. In other situations, private insurance markets may not be able to cover a particular risk, necessitating public provision of social insurance. Social Security, for example, helps ensure that elders have adequate incomes; Medicare (and Medicaid) ensures that elders have health insurance coverage; and the Older Americans Act provides in-home services such as Meals on Wheels. These federal programs recognize the limits of family, community, or employer support for the elderly and fill in the gaps.
The U.S. system of public supports for families with children or families with elderly relatives who need more care is typically less well developed than the systems in other advanced countries, and U.S. parents continue to rely primarily on their families, communities, and employers for support. The advantage of this approach is that the United States has a larger community-based volunteer sector and a better-developed system of employer supports than do many other countries; the disadvantage is that these supports do...