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Public or private policies to help working parents balance job and family responsibilities are substantially more limited in the United States than in other industrialized nations. This is true for parents in general, but is particularly true for low-income working parents who hold lower wage jobs. This paper summarizes what we know about families’ access to supports, employers’ experiences, and public and employer efforts to expand them. It explores paid sick leave/paid time off, paid parental leave at the birth of a child, workplace flexibility, child care assistance, and initiatives to link low-income working families with public benefits.
Now that a large majority of mothers work outside the home, more parents are trying to figure out how to meet the needs of their employers and jobs while also meeting the needs of their children and others dependent on their care1. At the same time, many employers face tight profit margins and concerns about global competition, leading them to decline to provide—or to pull back on—such benefits as paid parental or sick leave.
The employee-parent juggling act is a problem both for families and for the organizations that employ parents. But it is particularly challenging for low-income working families and their employers because of the nature of the jobs and industries in which they operate, and because of some of these families’ particular circumstances and needs2.
A range of employer-based or public policies can help support this balancing act, and some employers, states, and localities have moved forward to implement them. For this paper, we define the key work-family supports as paid leave for the care of a newborn or newly adopted child or other needy family member, paid sick leave or time off for ill workers or their children, and flexibility in work hours or shifts to attend to children’s school schedules or activities or other family obligations. We also explore subsidized child care of adequate quality for the times when working parents cannot care for their own children, and employer-based programs to link low-wage workers in low-income families with public programs such as the earned income tax credit (EITC) or public health insurance.
There are significant hurdles, however, to making these policies more available to families, especially low-income families. There are costs to choosing to implement or not implement them, and much of the debate is about what these costs are and who should bear them. Many advocates and researchers emphasize that the frequent absence of these benefits in low-wage jobs imposes major costs on working parents and their children (Heymann 2000; Levin-Epstein 2006a; Waldfogel 2006; Williams 2006). On the other hand, many employers, in particular small businesses, express concern about the impact of mandated benefits (even if not employer funded) on their firms’ operations and economic viability (Phillips 2002).
This paper summarizes what is known about the need for—and availability of— work-family benefits among working families broadly and low-income working families in particular. It describes employer experiences with many of these benefits and highlights a number of private and public approaches to providing greater support. Finally, it poses several questions to spur discussion about possible ways to move forward.
1 Seventy percent of mothers of children under age 18 were in the paid civilian workforce as of 2005, compared with 47 percent 30 years earlier (BLS 2006b). In addition, parents work more hours than they did 30 years ago (Waters Boots 2004).
2 Low-income is generally defined as twice the federal poverty level, or about $38,000 for a family of four in 2006. It is worth noting that many low-wage workers do not live in low-income families. It is also worth noting that about one-third of low-income families are headed by only one parent (Acs and Nichols 2005).
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