As a nation, the United States holds dear the belief that all people have an equal opportunity to grasp the American Dream. If adults work hard, they are supposed to have an equal chance at succeeding. Likewise, children are supposed to have equal chances at succeeding in school and leading healthy and full lives. But, too often, they don’t. The barriers many working poor parents currently face in the United States make it next to impossible for them to succeed at work while caring well for their children. Although our failure as a nation to provide essential supports affects all working parents, that failure has meant that parents living in poverty are less likely to succeed in the workplace and their preschool and school-age children are more likely to lack basic opportunities.

1. How did we get here?

In the last century and a half, two major transformations altered the makeup of the paid labor force in the United States. The first, the movement of men out of agricultural and other home-based work into the paid industrial labor force, began in the 1840s. The second began in earnest a century later when women entered wage and salary jobs in significant numbers.

From the founding of the United States until the mid-1800s, most children were raised in farm families in which both parents worked at home.1 In 1830, 70 percent of children lived in farm families, and only 15 percent had a wage-earning father.2 When most adults were working at their homes or on their land, their children and adult family members in need of care were with them, or nearby, as they worked. With the industrial revolution, the number of families with wage-earning fathers began to rise. In the 1880s, for the first time in U.S. history, children were more likely to be raised in a family in which their father earned a wage or salary outside the home and their mother did not than in a family with two parents working on a farm. By 1930, only 30 percent of American children lived in farm families.3

In small numbers, women began entering the industrial labor force as early as men did. Although women were among the first Americans to work in factories in the early industrial revolution, unmarried women made up the majority of the female labor force at that time.4 For women of color, as for white women, single women predominated in early paid labor force participation.5

The limited labor force participation by married women in the 1800s and early 1900s was neither an accident nor a result of women’s choices, but a reflection of labor market structure. Openings for men and women were advertised separately; many jobs barred women and many others explicitly barred married women. Moreover, employers could legally discriminate against women in hiring. It was not until World War II—when large numbers of women were needed to fill the jobs held by men who had gone to war—that a drama-tic decline in discrimination against married women occurred in hiring.6

Marked changes in the employment of mothers of school-age children began in the 1940s; equally marked changes in the employment of mothers of preschool children began in the 1960s. By 1990, more than 70 percent of children lived in households in which every parent was in the labor force.7 Changes in labor force participation affected women’s lives from ages twenty-five to sixty-five and led to profound shifts in how many women were at home to care for elderly parents as well as young children.

In short, the labor force changes of the last 150 years were the result not just of women entering the labor market but rather of both men and women entering the industrial and postindustrial labor force. The fact that both men and women work is not new. What has changed is the location and conditions of labor for both men and women. With this transformation in the location and nature of labor, families became dependent on wages and salaries for food, clothing, and other essentials. By the end of this revolution, most families no longer had any adult working at home full-time.

When the first adults in American households joined the formal labor market, our communities, states, and the federal government recognized that if lone wage earners were injured, lost their jobs, or grew too old or sick to work, their families would lack money for food and clothing. As a result, a series of state and federal programs—worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, and old age and survivor’s insurance—were created in the first third of the twentieth century to ensure that families were cared for even if the single wage-earner could no longer work.8

The more recent entry into the labor force of a second group of adults (many of whom are also primary caregivers) completed the transformation in how families meet caretaking needs. However, communities, states, and the federal government—in marked contrast to their response to the dramatic first shift in labor—have hardly responded to this second transformation, with its profound implications for the care of children and other dependents.

Little or nothing has been done to answer the critical questions families have been facing now for decades: Who regularly cares for pre-school and out-of-school children when all parents work away from home? Who provides routine care for elderly parents who can no longer care for themselves? What happens when children and the elderly get sick and need care at unanticipated times? What happens when children have developmental or educational problems and need an adult’s help during work hours?

The marked movement of men and women into the industrial and postindustrial labor force has transformed the United States. But we as a nation have failed to respond, leaving a rapidly widening gap between working families’ needs on the one side, and the combination of high workplace demands, outdated social institutions, and inadequate public policies on the other. The cost of our country’s failure to meet the changing needs of working families is being borne by children and adults alike. This article aims to provoke discussion of these critical problems. I have limited my focus here to the extent and consequences of the disparities families face in the United States across income groups.9

2. Barriers for children and parents

The failure of public and private policies to recognize and adapt so that working parents are in a position to meet the needs of our nation’s children is adversely affecting children’s chances during the preschool years, at school, and beyond.

Problems in early education

When working families find affordable, accessible, and high-quality education and care for their preschool and school-age children, their children fare well. Children who have the opportunity to attend preschool have larger vocabularies and are better readers at age six than their brothers and sisters who have not had the opportunity to attend.10 Evaluations of quality early childhood programs have shown a wide range of gains for children, including improved achievement test scores, a decreased need for special education services, decreased rates of retention, and higher rates of high school graduation.11 The problem is that most families cannot find that care. Moreover, many families in the United States simply cannot afford decent early education or care. In all but one state, the average annual cost of having a child in preschool is more than the average annual cost of public college tuition. In many places, preschool costs twice as much as college tuition. For example, sending a four-year-old to preschool in Seattle costs an average of $6,604 per year, whereas college tuition at a public institution costs an average of $3,151 per year.12

One option available for low-income families is Head Start, the principal federal program aimed at providing disadvantaged children with early educational opportunities. But Head Start in its current form serves only a small fraction of the needs of children living in poverty. Only half of three- and four-year-olds who qualify for Head Start are able to attend at all. Due to limited funding and slots, the overwhelming majority of those who attend do so less than full-time and for only one year, even though most would benefit from attending more. The availability is even more limited for early Head Start, which reaches less than 2 percent of those eligible.13

Insufficient care for school-age children

Like early education, a wide range of extended school programs have been shown to improve children’s academic achievement across social class.14 Well-designed after-school programs can enhance the quantity and quality of time spent on homework. The ability to read is at the core of much of elementary, middle, and high school achievement, and after-school programs have been shown to have important effects on reading. A National Academy of Sciences study on preventing reading difficulties confirmed that children who receive extra time and reading instruction beyond the current school day show significant improvements in their academic achievement.15 Reading performance improves for children already succeeding in school as well as for at-risk children receiving support in after-school programs.16 Among at-risk youth, aspirations for completing high school also improve when they participate in after-school programs, and youths in after-school programs are less likely both to drop out of school and to be held back. When communities have more structured activities for school-age children, they have fewer students suffering from major problems—including substance abuse and other behavioral and mental health problems.17 After-school programs have also been shown to lead to a decrease in crime and victimization.18 This makes sense given that the hours with the highest rates of children and youth committing and falling victim to crimes are on weekdays between 2 and 8 P.M..19

Yet, despite their demonstrated importance, affordable, quality programs for school-age children are not widely available. This is in part because, as grossly inadequate as the public and corporate policies regarding preschool children are, they are far more developed than the policies addressing the needs of school children. Employers who pride themselves on providing benefit packages for working parents typically present maternity leave policies and preschool child care programs as proof, while doing little or nothing for parents of school-age children. Since the federal government has done little more, school-age children’s needs have been largely ignored. As a result, many schoolchildren lack access to supervision and care during out-of-school hours.

The lack of out-of-school opportunities affects both low- and middle-income families. According to the U.S. Department of Education, twice as many parents would like to have an after-school program available to their children as have them available.20 And the situation is getting worse, not better. The General Accounting Office estimates that the demand in some urban areas for out-of-school programs will soon be four times as great as the supply.21

Obstacles to parental involvement

Parental involvement in different aspects of children’s education is an important determinant of how children fare in school.22 Parental involvement is associated with higher achievement in all levels of primary and secondary education.23 Parental involvement is associated with children’s higher achievement in language and mathematics, improved behavior, greater academic persistence, and lower dropout rates.24

Intermittently, working parents are called to take time off from work to meet with teachers, principals, and learning specialists; they need to visit schools and to help guide their children through difficult periods. Across the country, too many parents lack the paid leave and flexibility they need to take time from work to help their children with school problems. Disastrously, those who most need such benefits have the fewest.

In a study we conducted in 2000, for example, we found that families with a child in the bottom quartile in reading or math were significantly more likely to face working conditions that made it difficult or impossible for the parents to adequately assist their children. Of parents with a child who scored in the bottom quartile on math, more than half at times lacked any kind of paid leave and nearly three fourths could not consistently rely on flexibility at work to meet with teachers or learning specialists. One out of three found themselves in multiple jeopardy, simultaneously lacking paid vacation leave, sick leave, andwork flexibility (see Figure 1). One in six were not able to be available routinely in the evenings to help with homework (see Figure 2).

Families in which a child scored in the bottom quartile in reading were equally constrained by working conditions. More than half of these parents lacked paid leave, and nearly three out of four lacked flexibility they could rely on to meet with schoolteachers and specialists. Furthermore, as in the case of the parents with children scoring in the bottom quartile on math, one in six of the parents with children scoring in the bottom quartile in reading worked evenings, when their children needed their help with academics (see Figure 2).

These patterns also held for the parents of children who were at greatest risk: those who had to repeat a grade in school or who had been suspended from school. Four out of ten of these parents found themselves, some or all of the time, lacking both paid leave and flexibility (see Figure 1). Nearly one out of five of these parents worked evenings and one in eight worked nights (most without any choice) when their children needed them most (see Figures 2 and 3).

In all these cases, poor working conditions disastrously limited the extent to which parents could be available to help children whose education was in trouble. Can the relationship between parental working conditions and children’s poor school performance be explained by other factors? Even controlling for differences in family income and in parental education, marital status, and total hours parents worked, the more hours parents had to be away from home after school in the evening, the more likely their children were to test in the bottom quartile on achievement tests. Similarly, after controlling for other differences, parents who had to work at night were still 2.7 times as likely to have a child who had been suspended from school.

Parents have long played an essential role in the health care as well as the education of their children. When their parents are present, sick children have better vital signs and fewer symptoms; they recover more rapidly from illnesses and injuries.25 Furthermore, the presence of parents shortens children’s hospital stays by 31 percent.26

Despite compelling evidence about the value of parents’ sharing in their children’s health care, little attention has been paid to the factors that influence whether working parents can participate. In a study conducted in Baltimore, we asked young parents a series of questions about the factors that affected their ability to care for children who became sick. Only 42 percent of these parents were able to stay at home when their children were sick on a regular workday. Of those who were able to stay at home with their sick children, more than half said they could do so because they received some type of paid leave. Twenty-nine percent used paid vacation or personal days, 14 percent paid leave designed to care for sick family members, 11 percent their own paid sick leave, 11 percent unpaid leave, and 7 percent flexible working hours. Twenty-one percent used different work benefits on different occasions. Parents who were single, who were living near or below the poverty level, or had a high school education or less were significantly less likely to stay at home when their children became sick because they had worse working conditions.

Our research confirmed that the parents who received some type of paid leave were significantly more likely to stay home with their sick children (see Figure 4). In fact, the availability of paid leave was the key determinant in these parental choices. After controlling for other relevant factors, those parents who had either sick leave or vacation leave were 5.2 times as likely to care for their sick children as those who did not have such benefits.27

Despite the critical need, the majority of parents do not consistently have paid leave they can use to care for children, and as a result, children are left home alone or sent to school sick.28

Unequal burdens

The toll on children and adults of our nation’s inadequate policies is exacerbating the damage done by persistent income inequalities in the United States. While there is no doubt that families across the country, from every ethnic and racial group, middle-income as well as poor, are dramatically affected by the gap between what American institutions provide and what American families need, the poor are affected first and worst. When social institutions fail families, middle-income families have some resources of their own with which they can try, at least for a time, to plug holes in the dike.

Moreover, low-income families more frequently face the worst working conditions. As noted earlier, paid leave and flexibility at work can critically affect a worker’s chances of meeting family members’ needs while working. Nationally, families in the bottom quartile of income are significantly more likely to lack paid sick leave, paid vacation leave, and flexibility than families in the upper three quartiles of income. Even people who earn just above the median income are less likely than those in the top quartile of income to have either paid sick leave, paid vacation leave, or flexibility (see Figure 5). At the same time, they are more likely than those in the top quartile to have to work evenings or nights. Among employed parents, 20 percent of those in the lowest income quartile work evenings, compared to 14 and 13 percent of those in the middle quartiles and 7 percent of those in the highest quartile; for night work, the respective figures are 10, 9 (for both middle quartiles), and 6 percent.

On nearly every measure of job flexibility that would enable working adults to care for family members, middle-income employees are worse off than higher-income ones (see Figure 6). Furthermore, low-income families face still worse conditions than middle-income ones.

A gradient exists in the need for, as well as availability of, flexible working conditions. Just as they do for children, lower-income working adults have to spend substantially more time caring for elderly parents and parents-in-law by themselves (see Figures 7 and 8). One of many reasons for this is that lower-income children and adults get sick more often and have more chronic conditions than upper-income ones. Yet, fewer lower-income employees have the economic resources to pay for help, and the government provides little support.

3. Equal chances for all

Failing to respond to the past century and a half’s change in the nature of work means that we are failing to meet the essential needs of children and adults in the United States. Moreover, without addressing this failure we won’t be able to successfully address inequality. The costly gaps in caregiving do not exist because adults work. The gaps are formed as a result of social conditions that never adapted to the transformation of where and how parents work.

Our society—like any society—must continually reexamine how best to approach at least three essential issues: what values we will uphold, how the work of our society will get done, and how the generations that will lead our country in the future will be raised. The failure to address how working families’ needs are met in the United States is affecting all three of these. Our failure to address these needs is profoundly affecting the health, development, and education of children.29 It is also severely limiting the support available for adults with special health and daily care needs. Furthermore, people who decide to care for children or adults in need face poorer prospects in the workforce because our country allows workplaces to have unnecessary barriers to their meeting both job and family responsibilities. When we discriminate by caregiving status, we diminish the likelihood that adults will take the time to voluntarily provide the care on which our whole society depends.

Basic job benefits

Enabling workers to address the fundamental health and safety needs of their families is as important as workplaces addressing the impact of working conditions on the health and safety of employees themselves. We need to ensure that no one has to put the health and welfare of his or her family at risk in order to keep a job.

While passage of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)—the only federal legislation to directly address any needs of working families in the United States—was an important first step, there are as many holes in the safety net as threads. For those who are covered by the FMLA, the act has safeguarded the possibility of returning to their jobs after unpaid leave for a major illness of a limited number of immediate family members. The value of this leave to those able to use it should never be understated. However, the FMLA fails to provide any coverage to nearly half of American workers, because they work for small employers, have recently changed jobs, or work at multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. Moreover, three quarters of those covered in theory cannot afford to take unpaid leave and thus receive no coverage in practice. Furthermore, the act provides no coverage for the common illnesses of young children that nonetheless require an adult present, nor does it provide any coverage for educational needs, no matter how great; together these make up the vast majority of children’s unpredictable problems. Major illnesses, including terminal ones, of brothers and sisters, parents-in-law, and grandparents are among the many adult needs that remain entirely uncovered.

We should support the ability of Americans to care for themselves and for loved ones in at least two ways. First, short-term paid leave should be available to all working Americans. As documented here, many Americans still have no or only intermittent paid leave. We can afford as a country to ensure that all Americans have at least two weeks of paid family leave, which they can take to meet their own or their family’s health needs. This leave should be available for medical visits for preventive as well as curative care. It should be available to meet urgent developmental or educational needs as well: when a child is failing in school and parents need to meet with teachers; when a child is diagnosed with a learning disability and meetings with specialists are required; or when elderly parents are no longer able to care for themselves and need to have essential services arranged. Many companies would not need to increase the leave they already provide. The amount of sick leave they provide would already be sufficient; the only change would be to officially allow it to be used to meet critical needs of family members, as well as of the employee. Yet this amount of guaranteed leave would make an enormous difference for those families currently facing the worst conditions.

Second, we need to bring the United States up to global standards when it comes to paid parental leave. More than a hundred countries around the world—from high- to low-income, and with a wide range of political, social, and economic systems—all provide paid maternity leave. Throughout the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, paid paternity leave is also common. Paid parental leave could be created through many different options, ranging from legislation requiring businesses to provide minimum levels of parental leave to a public insurance system for parental leave that parallels unemployment or disability insurance.

Public access

Too often left out of discussions about what needs to change so that both work and families can thrive, are the civic and social institutions whose practices are grounded, often for no better reason than habit, in the rhythms of a nineteenth-century agrarian economy or in the brief moment during the twentieth century when most households had only one adult in the paid labor force.

For example, in one of the cities we have studied, a parent needing to register a child for school had to go in person during the school day to the Parent Information Center, which had no evening or weekend hours. Making it possible for working parents to register a child for school by mail let alone by phone, fax, or email—just as they now can register to vote—or offering a wider range of registration times would mean that many parents could handle this responsibility without missing work.

Many private institutions have already made the adjustments. Malls are open in the evening, banks have weekend hours, and grocery stores are open seven days a week. But the gatekeepers for public services and supports for families are often available only nine-to-five or for even more limited hours, Monday through Friday. As in other cases, the barriers are greatest, ironically, for the lowest-income families who most need childcare vouchers, food stamps, WIC, and other public services and supports—and who are also the least likely to have flexible work schedules or paid leave they can take to go to public offices during the workday.30

Public transportation provides another example. Because public transportation for children, the elderly, and ill and injured adults is so inadequate, work is often disrupted. Moreover, lack of transportation often keeps families from using available services. For example, while public schools provide bus transportation for the regular school day, even those schools that offer before- and after-school programs commonly fail to provide any transportation for children to support these programs. Similarly, the elderly may have health insurance so they can see a physician but no way to get to their appointments when they cannot drive or walk.

When services of any kind are designed, we need to think about how children and adults will get to and from those services, given that the majority will come from families in which all working-age adults will be employed outside the home. For some services, this will mean considering distance and location in selecting providers. For other services, we will need to provide public transportation. If we can provide transportation for the regular school day, then we can provide transportation for children in after-school programs. We can no longer ignore transportation issues in the provision of any services for children, the elderly, or the disabled.

Early educational opportunities

While many social institutions need to adapt to these new conditions, the most important changes are needed in education. Early childhood education is an imporant determinant of school performance. Access to such education today looks a lot like access to high school education did in 1949 (see Figure 9). In fact, the enrollment rates of children in kindergarten, nursery schools, and other preschools are lower in the United States than in thirteen European countries.31

We can afford to do more. In the United States, public expenditures for early childhood education are less than similar public expenditures in Finland, Norway, Austria, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, and Portugal. Our combined public and private expenditures on early childhood education are a smaller percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita than the public and private spending on early childhood education in all the aforementioned countries, as well as in Canada, Denmark, Hungary, Sweden, Spain, Turkey, and the Netherlands.32 State and federal governments have provided so little funding to preschools that it amounts to a parody of what is needed. For example, Alabama spent $395 per poor child per year—even including federal funding—or less than a dollar and a half per day. California spent $536 per poor child—approximately half state funding and half federal funding—still only about two dollars per day.33Given the cost of preschool, the lack of government funding means that many families simply cannot afford to enroll their children.

We currently face grave problems of both quality and affordability. A 1998 study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission found safety hazards in two thirds of licensed childcare settings. The National Institute of Child Health and Development reported that 60 percent of preschool settings were poor or only fair in quality.34 Moreover, while teachers of older children need certification, those caring for our youngest children are commonly not required to have either certification or any training in child development. While school districts have been trying to ensure smaller class sizes for older children, the majority of states still fail to meet the child-to-staff ratios for young children that are recommended by professional organizations, including the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

Children under five are at critical developmental stages. So we need to ensure that they are taught by teachers who are as well-trained as teachers of elementary school children. We need to ensure that they are adequately paid, so that high-quality educators will continue to work in this area and so that the enormously high rates of staff turnover will decrease. Finally, we need to mandate adequate child-to-adult ratios. We should guarantee high-quality early education for all families just as many European countries already do.35 Only with public funding will low-income children have a shot at quality early education, which is essential to providing lower-income children with an equal opportunity for academic success.

Opportunities for school-age children

We need to expand the opportunities for elementary and secondary school children as well. There is nothing magical about the current short school day and 180-day school year. Over the past 130 years, the length of the school year has been changed to meet the needs of families and children. As the amount of material children needed to learn in school for their economic survival increased, so too did the length of the school year. From 1870 to 1930, during a period of rapid industrialization, the length of the school year increased 30 percent, from 132 days to 173 days.36 Then the expansion of public education stalled; from 1930 to the present, the school term has increased only seven days from 173 days to 180 days.37 Leaving the agrarian school calendar behind and extending educational opportunity are long overdue. These changes are important for both children and parents.

Few states have invested adequately in extending school programs, though considerable evidence argues for such extension. With the exception of Hawaii, in no state do more than half of all public schools have extended days. In more than half of the states, no more than one in five public schools offer after-school programs. Parental demand markedly outstrips supply nationwide. The federal government’s efforts are currently focused on the Twenty-first Century Community Learning Centers initiative, which provides limited funding to communities so that they can provide services for children and families during after-school hours, including tutoring, mentoring, homework centers, academic enrichment activities, sports, and arts. The idea is very promising, but the Centers only touch a fraction of the need.38 For the more than fifty-five million school-age children in the United States, the funds amount to less than fifteen dollars per child per year—enough to pay for little more than one afternoon.39 We need to make access to academic extended-day and -year programs universal. When extended school and after-school programs are provided, they must be of high quality. The ability, training, and number of staff are all critical factors in the quality of programs. The relationships the programs have with the children’s schools, families, and communities are equally crucial.

Extending educational opportunities for school-age children is important for working families, but the potential benefits go far beyond school. Many economists have argued that how individuals and families fare in a global economy increasingly depends on their educational attainment. Political scientists and policymakers agree that the welfare of communities and nations will depend on the educational attainment of their citizens. But in international mathematics achievement tests, scores for U.S. students in 1997 ranked behind, in order, those of students in Singapore, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, the Slovak Republic, Switzerland, France, Slovenia, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Canada, Ireland, Australia, Israel, Thailand, Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, and England. Furthermore, the eighth-grade science scores of U.S. students ranked behind those of students in twenty-one of the same countries tested.40Extending the school day and the school year would simultaneously provide more educational opportunities for children who need to be able to compete economically and help working parents who need their children to receive enrichment activities and quality supervision in a safe place. The use of existing school buildings would reduce the costs of these programs and increase their accessibility.

Not only is the U.S. educational system failing to measure up against other countries, but it currently fails to measure up against the fundamental American principle of equal opportunity. At present, children from affluent families typically spend their after-school hours and summer days in enrichment activities. Children from poor families too often spend those hours alone or in the inadequate care of other young children. Teachers commonly observe that over the course of the summer, the skills of marginalized children fall further behind as they forget some of what they have learned during the school-year—and in contrast, children who have had enrichment opportunities move ahead. Providing a public opportunity for enrichment activities during the after-school hours and summer days would narrow the class disparities in how American children fare educationally.

Care for elderly and disabled adults

Caring for families is about more than meeting the needs of children. Between 1870 and 1990, the U.S. population increased six-fold, but the population of Americans sixty-five years and older increased twenty-seven fold.41 While those sixty-five years and older accounted for just over 1 million Americans (3 percent of the population) in 1870, as of 1999 there were over 34 million older Americans (13 percent of the population). By the year 2030, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there will be approximately 70 million Americans sixty-five and older (20 percent of the population).42

Although a great range of experience exists among older individuals, they are more likely than younger people to face limitations in their activities. While fewer than one in twenty adults under sixty-five are limited in their ability to care for themselves, one in five adults sixty-five years or older has difficulty bathing, dressing, or getting around inside or outside the home.43 Only a small minority of sixty- and seventy-year-olds have significant limitations, but the probability of having health problems increases with age.

We need to ensure that there are affordable solutions for meeting the daily as well as the urgent needs of the elderly. Yet, caring for the elderly will in some ways present far greater challenges than caring for children. When we consider how to expand educational opportunities for school-age children, we are considering a 25 percent increase in the school-day or the school-year—an increase that is likely to have a clear long-run economic return, which will offset some of the costs. Meeting the long-range needs of the elderly at first glance appears to be an overwhelming task. But it is not as daunting as it first seems. Moreover, as society focuses on other needs, those of the elderly are growing, not going away.

Clear steps can be taken both to decrease the need for long-term care and to improve the quality of life for older Americans. We need to eliminate age discrimination in the workplace, so that older Americans who want to work can do so. We need to ensure that the Americans with Disabilities Act is successfully implemented and enforced, so that the same is true for disabled Americans. Income from work is not only important to self-sufficiency but intellectual and physical stimulation have repeatedly been demonstrated to play a critical role in health, longevity, and minimizing disability.

We should ensure that the elderly and disabled Americans who are not working have sufficient opportunities for exercise, social interaction, and intellectual stimulation—all essential ingredients for their ability to live as healthy and independent lives as possible.44 When these opportunities include volunteer work, the elderly and disabled will be able to contribute to communities at the same time. We need to ensure that those who cannot live alone without support but are not in need of twenty-four-hour care get the amount of help necessary for them to continue to live at home and avoid the far-greater social, personal, and economic costs of being unnecessarily institutionalized.

The critical question of long-term care insurance—how to pay for the care of those who need twenty-four-hour nursing home or other care—will remain. But both the need for and cost of that care will be reduced if we provide elderly and disabled adults with sufficient opportunities and supports for continuing to live independently, and if we provide their family members with the necessary leave from work to help when urgent needs arise.

4. Affordable and necessary

Other nations have demonstrated the economic viability of providing basic family benefits. Countries with a wide range of economic, political, and social structures have demonstrated the feasibility of paid maternity leave. From Germany to Gabon, from Belgium to Brazil, from Switzerland to Senegal, women receive paid maternity leave.45Providing paid paternity leave is no less affordable. Access to early childhood education is ensured in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, and Britain.46

When it comes to school-age children, the United States is far from the top in spending on education. Public spending on education, as a percentage of GDP per capita, is higher in Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland.47 What’s more, in contrast to our 180 day average, the school year is 220 days in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Italy; in Germany, 213 days.48

What will making the needed changes on a national level mean to employers? On balance, the changes will make it easier for employers to get their essential work done well. Employees who currently must miss work because they cannot find child care for preschool or school-age children will not need to do so when we have quality early education and extended school days available nationwide. Employees who have had to miss work to register a child for school or their families for food stamps will not need to do so when public services either increase their hours or expand their registration and re-enrollment methods to include mail, phone, fax, or the Internet. Employees who now must take off an hour and a half every day to transport a child to an after-school program will no longer need to leave work when adequate transportation services are developed. While in some cases necessary absences may increase—such as when parents use their newly available leave time to be with sick children who should not be left at home alone—these will be balanced by the drop in preventable absences. Whereas now, companies that offer good conditions for working families have to compete with companies that offer none, universal benefits will level the playing field nationally.

Addressing the needs of working families will no more threaten our economy than providing public education or ensuring basic safety standards for workers has. In fact, like providing public education, many of the essential steps will strengthen our economy. In the long run, our international competitiveness is determined by the quality of our labor force. Both by making it possible for all Americans—irrespective of income, gender, or caretaking responsibilities—to contribute in the workplace to their full potential, and by improving the educational opportunities and support available to children who will join the labor force in a generation, these reforms will strengthen our ability to compete.

We can afford to make the needed changes; we cannot afford to continue our current practices. Making changes on a national scale is necessary if all American working families are to have a chance. Perhaps most overlooked in the entire debate about addressing the needs of working families is how fundamental this effort is to equal opportunity in our country. If we do not take the needs of working families as a keystone, the gaps between the prospects of poor, middle-class, and rich children will only grow wider.

As a nation we face critical choices. Will poor working parents and their children continue to face far worse odds than other families? What will happen to a sizeable fraction of the middle class—particularly those families in which a child or adult has special needs? Will they all be left behind? Or will we bring our social institutions into the twenty-first century?

Much of what must be done extends past reforms. In the past, we have expanded public education for high school; expanding early education is equally important now. We have school days and calendars that matched the agrarian work cycle; we should update them to match parents’ industrial and postindustrial work schedule and children’s increasing need for high-level skills. We have Social Security that responds to the income needs of older Americans; we must respond to their other needs as well. We have national unemployment insurance that dates from a time when the loss of the single wage earner’s job was the largest threat; we need paid family leave insurance for the current workforce, for whom loss of work is as likely to result from the need of an adult to be home to provide care for a family member. We have adequate transportation systems for healthy adults, we should have equally good ones to link children and adults in need to their caregivers. Ultimately, all that is required is the depth of commitment borne of the recognition that our nation’s future depends on effective action.


This article draws on The Widening Gap: Why America’s Working Families Are In Jeopardy and What Can Be Done About It by Jody Heymann, (New York: Basic Books, 2000). Figures 1–9 correspond to figures in chapters 3 and 6, and appendix G of the book. The research was made possible by the generous support of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the William T. Grant Foundation, and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. I am particularly grateful for the assistance of Alison Earle, Jennifer Eckerman, and Alyssa Rayman-Read in the preparation of this version.

1 Donald J. Hernandez and David E. Myers, America’s Children: Resources from Family, Government, and the Economy (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1993).

2 Donald J. Hernandez, “Children’s Changing Access to Resources: A Historical Perspective,” in Families in the U.S.: Kinship and Domestic Politics, eds. Karen V. Hansen and Anita Ilta Garey (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 201–15.

3 Hernandez, “Children’s Changing Access to Resources: A Historical Perspective.”

4 Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

5 Claudia Goldin, Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women (New York: Oxford University Press,1990).

6 Before the war, for example, three out of five school districts refused to hire married women; after the war, only one out of five refused. Before the war, 50 percent of school districts fired women who married while employed; after the war, only 10 percent did. When the marriage bans eroded, the rise in wage labor by married women commenced in earnest.

7 Hernandez and Myers, America’s Children: Resources from Family, Government, and the Economy; Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1998, 118th ed. (Washington, D.C.: G.P.O., 1998).

8 Worker’s compensation, the first of these to be enacted on a wide scale, had been adopted by ten states as of 1911 and by forty-two states as of 1920; all fifty states now have such laws. At a state level, California passed the first mandatory old-age assistance in 1929, and Wisconsin adopted the first compulsory unemployment insurance in 1932; see Phyllis J. Day, A New History of Social Welfare (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997). The Social Security Act of 1935 turned income support for the elderly and unemployment insurance into federal policies and programs.

9 Readers may wish to refer to The Widening Gap for analysis of a range of related issues: gender disparities, outdated working conditions and practices, the care of elderly and disabled family members, and the role of extended family in providing support.

10 Janet Currie and Duncan Thomas, “Does Head Start make a difference?” American Economic Review 85 (1995): 341–64.

11 Ruth McKey et al., The impact of Head Start on children, families and communities: Final report of the Head Start evaluation, synthesis, and utilization project (Washington, D.C.: CSR Inc., 1985); Susan Ring Andrews et al., “The skills of mothering: A study of parent child development centers,” Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 47 (1982): 1–83; W. Steven Barnett, “Long-term effects of early childhood programs on cognitive and school outcomes,” The Future of Children 5 (1995): 25–50; Frances Campbell and Craig Ramey, “Effects of early intervention on intellectual and academic achievement: A follow-up study of children from low-income families,” Child Development 65 (1994): 684–98; Howard Garber, The Milwaukee Project: Preventing Mental Retardation in Children at Risk(Washington, D.C.: American Association on Mental Retardation, 1988); Dale Johnson and Todd Walker, “A follow-up evaluation of the Houston Parent-Child Development Center: School performance,”Journal of Early Intervention 15 (1991): 226–36.

12Karen Shulman, Issue Brief: The High Cost of Child Care Puts Quality Care Out of Reach for Many Families: Children’s Defense Fund(Washington, D.C.: Children’s Defense Fund, 2000).

13 Craig Turner, Head Start Bureau, in a telephone interview by Maria Palacios, 7 March 2000, based on Head Start Program Information Report (September 1998–June 1999) and data from Head Start Bureau databases.

14 Jill Posner and Deborah Lowe Vandell, “Low-income children’s after-school care: Are there beneficial effects of after-school programs?”Child Development 65 (1994): 440–56; Department of Education, Safe and Smart, Making After-School Hours Work for Kids (Washington, D.C., 1998). Available at: SafeandSmart [6 July 2000].

15 Catherine E. Snow, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Washington, D.C.: National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences, 1998).

16 Darrell Morris, Beverly Shaw, and Jan Perney, “Helping low readers in grades 2 and 3: An after-school volunteer tutoring program,”Elementary School Journal 91 (1990): 133–50.17 Jean L. Richardson et al., “Substance abuse among eighth-grade students who take care of themselves after school,” Pediatrics 84 (1989): 556–566; D. Blyth, and N. Leffert, “Communities as contexts for adolescent development: An empirical analysis,” Journal of Adolescent Research 10 (1995): 64–87.

18 James Allen Fox and Sanford A. Newman, After-School Crime or After-School Programs: Tuning in the Prime Time for Violent Juvenile Crime and Implications for National Policy (Washington, D.C.: Fight Crime Invest in Kids, 1997); Stephen P. Schinke, Mario A. Orlandi, and Kristin L. Cole, “Boys and Girls Clubs in public housing developments: Prevention services for youth at risk,” Journal of Community Psychology, OSAP special issue, 1992; Department of Education, Safe and Smart, Making After-School Hours Work for Kids.

19 Melissa Sickmund, Howard N. Snyder, and Eileen Poe-Yamagata,Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1997 Update on Violence, report prepared for the Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (Washington, D.C., 1997).

20 Department of Education, Safe and Smart, Making After-School Hours Work for Kids.21

General Accounting Office, Welfare Reform, Implications of Increased Work Participation for Child Care (Washington, D.C., 1997).

22 Robert Bradley et al., “Home environment and school performance among Black elementary school children,” Journal of Negro Education56 (1987): 499–509; Barbara K. Iverson, Geraldine D. Brownlee, and Herbert J. Walberg, “Parent-teacher contacts and student learning.Journal of Educational Research 74 (1981): 394–6; David L. Stevenson and David P. Baker, “The family-school relation and the child’s school performance,” Child Development 58(1987): 1348–357.

23 Timothy Z. Keith et al., “Does parental involvement affect eighth-grade student achievement? Structural analysis of national data,”School Psychology Review 22 (1993): 474–6; Paul G. Fehrmann, Timothy Z. Keith, and Thomas M. Reimers, “Home influences on school learning: Direct and indirect effects of parental involvement on high school grades,” Journal of Educational Research 80 (1987): 330–7.

24 Arthur J. Reynolds, “Comparing measures of parental involvement and their effects on academic achievement,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 7(1992): 441–62; James Griffith, “Relation of parental involvement, empowerment, and school traits to student academic performance,” Journal of Educational Research 90 (1996): 33–41; Sandra L. Christenson, Theresa Rounds, and Deborah Gorney, “Family factors and student achievement: An avenue to increase students’ success,” School Psychology Quarterly 7 (1992): 178–206; D. Miller and M. Kelley, “Interventions for improving homework performance: A critical review,” School Psychology Quarterly 6 (1991): 174–85; James P. Comer, “Home-school relationships as they affect the academic success of children,” Education and Urban Society 16 (1984): 323–37; John W. Fantuzzo, Gwendolyn Y. Davis, and Marika D. Ginsburg, “Effects of parental involvement in isolation or in combination with peer tutoring on student self-concept and mathematics achievement,”Journal of Educational Psychology 87 (1995): 272–81.

25 Inger Kristensson-Hallstron, Gunnel Elander, and Gerhard Malmfors, “Increased parental participation on a pediatric surgical daycare unit,” Journal of Clinical Nursing 6 (1997): 297–302; P. R. Mahaffy, “The effects of hospitalization on children admitted for tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy,” Nursing research 14 (1965): 12-19; John Bowlby, Child Care and the Growth of Love (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965); James Robertson, Young Children in Hospitals (New York: Basic Books, 1958); Sarah J. Palmer, “Care of sick children by parents: A meaningful role,” Journal of Advanced Nursing 18 (1993): 185–91; G. van der Schyff, “The role of parents during their child’s hospitalization,” Australian Nurses Journal 8 (1979): 57–8, 61.

26 M. R. Taylor and P. O’Connor, “Resident parents and shorter hospital stay,” Archives of Disease in Childhood 64 (1989): 274–6.

27 S. Jody Heymann, Sara Toomey, and Frank Furstenberg, “Working parents: what factors are involved in their ability to take time off from work when their children are sick?” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 153 (1999): 870–4.

28 S. Jody Heymann, Alison Earle, and Brian Egleston, “Parental availability for the care of sick children,” Pediatrics 98 (1996): 226–30; Heymann, Toomey, and Furstenberg, “Working parents”; S. Jody Heymann, and Alison Earle, “The impact of welfare reform on parents’ ability to care for their children’s health,” American Journal of Public Health 89 (1999): 502–5.

29 Heymann and Earle, “The impact of welfare reform”; Heymann, Toomey, and Furstenberg, “Working parents”; Heymann, Earle, and Egleston, “Parental availability.”

30 Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is a program providing education, nutritional supplementation, and access to health services for low-income, pregnant, and breastfeeding women and those with preschool children.

31 Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyers, Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC): Cross-National Variation in Service Organization and Financing (New York: Columbia Institute for Child and Family Policy, 2000).

32 Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Table 55–4. Expenditures per Student for Early Childhood Education, 1993. Available at: [11 July 2000].

33 Urban Institute, Children’s Budget Report: A Detailed Analysis of Spending on Low-Income Children’s Programs in Thirteen States(Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, 1998).

34 David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The Future of Children: Caring for Infants and Toddlers (Los Altos, Ca.: The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, 2001).

35 Gornick and Meyers, Early Childhood Education and Care.

36 Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Table 39. Historical Summary of Public Elementary and Secondary School Statistics: 1869–70 to 1996–97. Available at: npubs2000/digest99/ d99t039.html [11 July 2000].


38 Department of Education, Twentieth-First Century Community Learning Centers. Available at: 21stcclc/index.html [14 June 2001].

39 Bureau of the Census, Resident Populations Estimates of the United States by Age and Sex: April 1, 1990 to July 1, 1999, with Short-Term Projection to November 1, 2000. Available at:[2 January 2001].

40 Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics,Digest of Education Statistics 1997, NCES 98–015, (Washington, D.C., 1997).

41 Judith Treas and Ramon Torrecilha, “The Older Population,” in State of the Union, America in the 1990s, vol. 2, Social Trends, ed. R. Farley (New York: Russell Sage Foundation), 47–92.

42 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Development, Statistics Division, Demographic Yearbook 1991 (New York: United Nations, 1992).

43 Bureau of the Census, 1990 Census of Population and Housing. Social, Economic, and Housing Characteristics (Washington D.C., 1992).

44 Lisa F. Berkman, “The Relationship of Social Networks and Social Support to Morbidity and Mortality,” in Social Support and Health,eds. Sheldon Cohen and S. Leonard Syme (Orlando: Academic Press, Inc., 1985), 241–262; Lisa F. Berkman, Thomas E. Oxman, and Teresa E. Seeman, “Social networks and social support among the elderly: Assessment issues,” in The Epidemiologic Study of the Elderly, eds. Robert B. Wallace and Robert F. Woolson (New York: Oxford University Press), 196–212; Lisa F. Berkman and S. Leonard Syme, “Social networks, host resistance and mortality: a nine-year follow-up study of Alameda County residents,” in Psychosocial Processes in Health: A Reader, eds. Andrew Steptoe and Jan Wardle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), vii–11.

45 International Labour Organization, Maternity Protection at Work: Revision of the Maternity Protection Convention (Revised), 1952 (No. 103), and Recommendation, 1952 (No. 95) Report V(1) (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1997).

46 The Clearinghouse on International Developments in Child, Youth & Family Policies, New 12 Country Study Reveals Substantial Gaps in U.S. Early Childhood Education and Care Policies (Issue Brief: Summer 2001) (New York: Institute for Child and Family Policy, 2001).

47 National Center for Education Statistics, Department of Education,Digest of Education Statistics 2000, NCES 2001–034, (Washington, D.C.: 2001).

48 Janet Gornick, Marcia Meyers, and Katherin Ross, “Supporting the employment of mothers: Policy variation across fourteen welfare states,” Journal of European Social Policy 7 (1997): 45–69.