Parents are time squeezed, these policies can help

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Editor's note:

This blog is part of a series highlighting policy proposals from Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill’s 2020 A New Contract with the Middle Class.

As many companies consider or implement a return to work, ensuring that there is a strong infrastructure in place to support working parents is at the forefront of the policy conversation. As our economy continues to rebound, it is more important than ever that the basic needs of all caregivers are met. Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill outline several policies that can ease the pressure on caregivers and working parents in A New Contract with the Middle Class. They discuss the need for paid family leave, schooldays matching workdays, universal pre-K, subsidized childcare and mid-career sabbaticals.

Squeezed for time

Women’s labor force participation has risen over 20 percentage points since the 1970s. Over 40 percent of mothers are the sole or primary breadwinner and 70 percent of couples are now dual earners. As Reeves and Sawhill show, while this shift has been beneficial to families’ incomes, working parents now feel a greater time pressure as they are pressed to juggle work, child care, and household responsibilities, with most of the burden falling on women (in her work, Sawhill dubbed this phenomenon “the time squeeze”). The time squeeze has been worsened by outdated and ill-adapted policies and lack of support that recognize the rise in dual-earning couples and pressures faced by working parents, namely the lack of a federal paid leave policy, mismatched work and schooldays, and the sparseness of quality child care and pre-K programs.

As our economy continues to rebound, it is more important than ever that the basic needs of all caregivers are met

The pandemic brought these issues to the surface as working parents, and especially mothers, were left to navigate work and care for their children with schools and child care centers closed. As Bauer et al. show in a recent analysis using The Hamilton Project and Future of the Middle Class Initiative’s Survey of Mothers with Young Children, of the mothers surveyed in 2020, more than 16 percent reported that someone in their household left their job due to child-care responsibilities. And for those still in the labor force during the pandemic, either working from home or as an essential worker, 70 percent reported that it was difficult to balance work and family.

Building a care infrastructure 

In A New Contract with the Middle Class, Reeves and Sawhill propose policies that could ease the time squeeze for working parents and create a system that supports families as the nation recovers from the pandemic.

  • Paid Leave. Reeves and Sawhill suggest twenty days of paid leave for any purpose, including illness. This would provide relief to millions of families and allow some time for them to mentally recover from the aftermath of a yearlong pandemic.
  • Mid-career sabbaticals. As more and more parents are working and life expectancy increases, Reeves and Sawhill describe a “time imbalance” in the life cycle. That is, working parents, and workers in general, are time squeezed during mid-life and have considerable time in later life, after retirement. To create a balance and relieve some of this mid-life pressure, Reeves and Sawhill suggest creating two new accounts within the Social Security system: one for lifelong learning and one for paid family leave. The lifelong learning account could be used for further education or training to upgrade skills while the paid leave account, in combination with the 20 days of general paid leave, would be intended for family care, offering up to 12 weeks of leave to care for a child or relative.
  • Schooldays to match workdays. The average school day is from 8:00am to 3:00pm, while the average workday spans 9:00am to 5:00pm. Reeves and Sawhill propose that the standard school day be shifted later to better align with most job schedules, and that after-school care be made universally available. This shift could keep working parents from having to reduce their hours or even having to stay home to care for school-aged children. (Starting school later in the day would also improve educational outcomes, as Reeves argues elsewhere).
  • Universal pre-K. In order to further reduce the time burden for parents with younger children, Reeves and Sawhill support universal pre-K integrated into the K-12 system. Universal pre-K would make it possible for every family to have access to affordable, high-quality pre-K for three- and four-year-olds, reducing the financial burden of early education and equally preparing children for entry into the K-12 system.
  • Subsidized child care. To better support parents with young children in their earlier years, Reeves and Sawhill also call for subsidized child care, much like President Biden has proposed. As part of the American Families Plan, Biden puts forward a child care plan that would be free of cost for low-income families, and ensure that all other families spend no more than 7 percent of their income on child care.

The time is now

Before the pandemic, working parents, and especially women, were squeezed for time, juggling work and child and household responsibilities without adequate support. As child care centers and schools shut down, and many companies resumed operations online, working and single parents struggled to keep up, with many exiting the labor force as a result. As many workers begin to return to the office, Reeves and Sawhill outline a plan to meet the imminent need for a robust care infrastructure. By providing paid sick and family leave, encouraging mid-career sabbaticals to allocate time across the life cycle, investing in universal pre-K and subsidized child care, and aligning school days and workdays, Reeves and Sawhill argue that working parents will be better equipped to balance work and home life.