Parental work flexibility improves child well-being more than cash payments

February 17, 2021

Time is more effective than money at helping struggling families. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)

Policies designed to give lower-income families more time together are more effective than cash transfers in reducing the well-being gap between kids from richer and poorer families, according to new cross-national research, bolstering arguments that the U.S. does not do enough to mandate work flexibility and paid leave.

In an article published in Social Forces, authors Matthew Andersson, Michael Garcia and Jennifer Glass found evidence that children's self-rated health improves as state-mandated work flexibility and paid leave mandates become more generous, resulting in “greatly narrowed” socioeconomic disparities in child well-being.

The findings shed light on how parental stress impacts children's life prospects, according to Andersson, and on how governments can step in to set vulnerable kids’ lives on a better long-term trajectory. 

“Parental stress shapes children’s health,” Andersson told The Academic Times, adding that this potentially harmful link, "could be mitigated by better national work-family policy.”

Health and well-being disparities have beset low-income families and vexed policymakers around the world for generations as debates raged over how best to improve a range of life outcomes for society’s most disadvantaged populations.

Children starting off in disadvantaged circumstances are often at a particularly high risk of having their early-life setbacks compound over many years, the researchers noted. That lifelong process begins early, as a lack of resources pressures low-income families financially and strains the foundations on which stable, nurturing parent-child relationships are built.

Cash transfers to struggling families may not boost kids’ well-being, according to the researchers. While subsidizing child care costs and giving out cash benefits or income support payments plays an important role in fighting homelessness and hunger, these measures don’t directly free parents up to care for their kids.

“Parent-child relationships and child development suffer under family economic disadvantage, not only because of material or food supply hardships but also because financial and time strain leads to parental stress, [which] in turn undermine parents’ ability to provide consistent or nurturing parenting,” the researchers wrote.

“Children are particularly vulnerable to poverty at early ages, and economic disadvantages experienced early in life accumulate to produce widening inequalities in skill development and health across childhood and adolescence,” they continued.

Parents at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum often work jobs which don’t entitle them to schedule flexibility or time off to spend with their children, the researchers said, and aren’t able to negotiate such benefits with their employers. 

For just that reason, they suspected, lower-income kids could stand to gain the most from government-mandated work-family reconciliation policies that could help close the socioeconomic gap that divides the well-being trajectories of rich and poor children.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers analyzed links between work-family policies and cash transfer mandates on child well-being across 20 developed nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, controlling for other factors that could influence well-being outcomes.

They gauged how generous each of the countries was with respect to work-family policies, including paid vacation and sick leave, work flexibility and maternity leave, as well as cash transfers made to families with children.

Using that data, they searched for potential connections between policy mandates and three child well-being outcomes: psychological health complaints, life satisfaction levels and self-rated health, as reported in the 2006 and 2010 Health Behavior in School-Aged Children surveys.

To track the effects that policy measures have on the gap in well-being outcomes, the researchers developed “interaction-based models” to uncover socioeconomic differences in the estimated effect a given policy had on child well-being metrics.

They found that in countries where work-family reconciliation policies were strongest — including Sweden, the Czech Republic and Germany — gaps in health and life satisfaction shrank, suggesting that the policy reduced the well-being disparity between children in rich and poor families.

In particular, the researchers discovered that, "Gaps in fair or poor health by family disadvantage are narrowed by about 60%” when moving from countries with the weakest overall work-family policies — including the United States  — to the countries with the strongest policies.

They also found that disparities in reported life satisfaction shrank by approximately 25% when moving from countries with the weakest overall work-family policy strength to the strongest.

By contrast, the researchers found little evidence that cash-transfer policies were weakening “family disadvantage effects” on well-being outcomes.

The findings are important for policymakers focused specifically on what governments can do to reduce the negative impacts poverty and parental work stress ultimately have on kids, according to the researchers.

“While cash transfers may be successful in improving baseline rates of poverty or homelessness … they may not alter parents’ working conditions as they relate to [providing] parental care and support,” the researchers said. “Work-family reconciliation policies, in contrast, may operate on this very pathway, enabling parent-child involvement in ways that facilitate healthy habits and promote emotional and cognitive development during adolescence.”

The lesson may be especially urgent in the U.S., which notched the researchers' lowest score for overall work-family reconciliation policies. Vulnerable American children could stand to gain disproportionately from policies aimed at helping their parents to support them, Andersson said.

“Traditionally, the U.S. has placed burdens for establishing work-family accommodation on employers and individual businesses,” he said, noting that other OECD nations have chosen less laissez-faire strategies. “If the U.S. could switch course by mandating work-family benefits regardless of employer, our findings suggest that U.S. children would show some of the largest health gains across all OECD countries.”

The article “Work–Family Reconciliation and Children’s Well-Being Disparities across OECD Countries,” published on Jan. 28 in Social Forces, was co-authored by Matthew A. Anderson, Baylor University; Michael A. Garcia, University of Texas at Austin; and Jennifer Glass, University of Texas at Austin.

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