How Family Friendly Are Family-Friendly Policies?
he shift of women’s labor from unpaid care and household management to paid employment has been advanced by an array of social policies aimed at. reducing the friction between work and family life. These “family-friendly” policies typically include a package of benefits such as parental leave, family services, and day care. For the most part these policies address the lifestyle needs of mothers in the neotraditional and modern categories—those trying to balance work and family obligations. The costs of publicly subsidized day care are borne by all taxpayers, but the programs offer no benefits to childless women who prefer the postmodern lifestyle and are of little use to mothers outside the labor force who stay at home to care for their children. Indeed, childless women in full-time careers are rarely the subjects of family-related policy deliberations. One exception, noted earlier, is the case of childless workers in Germany who are being required to make higher contributions to the country’s compulsory nursing-home insurance program than workers with children.
Compared to the industrial democracies of Europe, the United States is considered a laggard in dispensing parental leave, day care, and other publicly subsidized emollients to diminish the friction between raising a family and holding a job. The right to take twelve weeks of job-protected family leave was initiated in 1993, with coverage limited to companies with fifty employees or more—and the leave is unpaid. Although unpaid leave places no strain on the public coffer, there was a substantial rise in government spending on child care during the 1990s, which benefited mainly low-income families. Testifying before Congress in 2002, Douglas Besharov estimated that between 1994 and 1999 federal and state expenditures on child-care programs climbed by almost 60 percent, from $8.9 to $14.1 billion, most of which served low-income families.1 About $2 billion of additional support was delivered to middle – and upper-income families through the child-care tax credit, for a total of $16 billion in publicly subsidized care.2 While $16 billion is no trivial sum, it is still well below European expenditures on a per capita basis.
Spending on conventional family-friendly arrangements in the United States is relatively low, in part because of the ideological ambivalence in this realm of policy. Public sympathy for welfare programs that pay unmarried women to stay home and care for their children evaporated as the labor-force participation of married women with children under six years old multiplied threefold, from less than 20 percent in 1960 to more than 60 percent in 2000. Public spending on day care in the United States is largely related to making it possible for welfare mothers to enter the labor force. And conservatives have long argued for strengthening work requirements in welfare programs. At the same time, many conservatives also support the idea of “putting less emphasis on policies that free up parents to be better workers, and more emphasis on policies that free up workers to be better parents,” as expressed in the Report to the Nation from the Commission on Children at Risk.3 Liberals have traditionally resisted demands that welfare recipients should work for their benefits. But this position softens when gender feminists on the left advocate for universal child care and other policies that encourage all mothers to enter the paid workplace. Publicly subsidized child care is the most central and in many ways the most controversial provision in the standard package of benefits designed to harmonize work and family life.