September 2004, Vol. 127, No. 9
Parenthood and employment
Book reviews from past issues
Parenthood and employment
Families that Work: Policies for Reconciling Parenthood and Employment. By Janet C. Gornick and Marcia K. Meyers. New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 2003, 392 pp., $39.95/hardcover; $28/softcover.
"American families are struggling with a shared dilemma: if everyone is at the workplace, who will care for the children?"
That is how Janet C. Gornick and Marcia K. Meyers begin their summing up, and that dilemma—created by the decline of the male-breadwinner model of family organization and the steady rise in the labor force participation of women, particularly mothers of young children—is the central issue that they address in their comprehensive work.
The question is not unique to the United States. The same thing has occurred, to varying degrees, throughout the advanced industrial world. Because of the widespread nature of the phenomenon, a variety of trails have been blazed by a number of countries in reconciling the employment of mothers with family life.
Most of the empirical analysis in this book is cross-national. Gornick and Meyers compare 11 countries with the United States, organized into three fairly homogeneous groups: the four Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden; five other countries in Northern Continental Europe—Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands; and two mainly English-speaking countries—the United Kingdom and Canada. Countries in the groups vary widely in their family policies. Those of the Nordic countries are the most generous and egalitarian. The Continental countries, while liberal in their welfare measures, are more conservative with respect to traditional gender roles and adherence to market principles. Canada, and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom, most resembles the United States in that market principles remain dominant and family assistance is heavily needs-based.
The authors begin with a variety of well-documented indicators of family well-being. Among the indicators are measures of the rate of family poverty, incidence of low birth weight, mortality rates among infants and young children, teenage pregnancies and abortions, and eighth-grade achievement test scores in science and mathematics. With the exception of math achievement, where the U.K. eighth graders do worse, the United States is at the bottom in all the measures, usually followed by the other English-speaking countries.
Even though the Nordic countries have the highest employment rate of mothers—though not in total parental time spent at work, which is greatest in the United States—they fare best in most of these measures of family well-being. That should not be a surprise, suggest the authors, because they have also been the most successful in creating "dual-earner-dual-carer societies" with their "family-friendly" labor and childcare policies.
Only a passing nod is given to the possibility that other factors such as demographic characteristics, labor market structures, and cultural factors may also be important in explaining the different outcomes. If family friendliness of policies, as they measure it, is so crucial, then why does the United States, on the bottom of their scale, continue to have a higher fertility rate than the European countries? Few social outcomes could be more directly related to the family friendliness of the social environment than the choice to have a child.
The authors are unabashed advocates of European-style family policies for the United States, a fact that might color their interpretation of the data. In a chapter addressing objections to adopting European family policies, they suggest that great increases in non-marital childbearing in Europe, admittedly facilitated by generous social programs there, are not portentous for the United States because "the majority of unmarried parents in most European countries are in stable, cohabiting relationships." That may be true, but the fact remains that single-parent households, strictly defined, are very much on the rise in Europe. When 55 percent of all live births are to unmarried women, as was the case in Sweden in 2000, there is more than enough room for many of those births to be to women without partners or to women in less-than-stable relationships. Sweden’s single-parent households make up 23 percent of all households with children. European proportions of single-parent households remain lower than in the United States, but the differential is closing. (See Gary Martin and Vladimir Kats, "Families and work in transition in 12 countries, 1980-2001," Monthly Labor Review, September 2003, tables 4 and 6.)
This study is perhaps most valuable for its extensive up-to-date tabulations, by country, of family-related practices and policies. The tabulations are drawn from an impressive array of national and international sources. Readers learn that paid maternity/parental leave in Europe ranges from 14 weeks in Germany to 52 weeks in Sweden, and that replacement of most or all wages is commonplace. In the United States, only five States have any form of paid maternity leave at all. All of the European countries have maximum weekly hours of work, ranging from 39 to 48. The United States and Canada have no such restriction. In every one of the European countries a minimum number of vacation days are prescribed by law. These minimums range from 20 to 25. The United States has no policy of required vacations, and the average number in practice is much less than 20. Early childhood education and care is provided by the government in all of the Continental European countries, and providers of the service are generally well paid and standards are high. In the United States, such services are generally private and expensive; the providers are relatively poorly paid; and standards are highly variable.
More than a book of advocacy, this is a prodigious work of scholarship in a growing and important interdisciplinary field. Of the 413 references, 198 are to works published in 2000 or later, 9 of which are forthcoming. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the study of comparative economic systems has been on the decline. Studies such as these, which compare different aspects of mainly free-market economies, could breathe new life into the field.
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