Politics & Policy

The Government’s Family Policy Shouldn’t Ignore One-Third of Families

(Dreamstime image: Dmytro Zinkevych)
Hillary Clinton’s child-care proposal doesn’t measure up.

Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton added an important detail to her family agenda this week, outlining a plan to double the child tax credit for families with children four and under from $1,000 to $2,000. This new offering comes on the heels of an earlier campaign rollout of a plan to make child care more affordable by capping families’ expenditures on child care at 10 percent of their income, with no commitment to extending similar support to families with a stay-at-home parent.

Clinton’s latest family-policy proposal extends a helping hand to nearly all families with young children bearing the financial burden of raising the next generation. In contrast, her child-care plan leaves a substantial share of American families and children out in the cold. Indeed, her plan to spend billions subsidizing child care for dual-earner families, but not for families with one parent at home, raises important questions about the division of paid and unpaid work in American families today:

What share of families with children have a stay-at-home parent? And what share of children have a stay-at-home parent? More generally, how do contemporary parents divide paid and unpaid work?

How do today’s parents wish to handle paid work? And what kind of care do they think is ideal for their children?

In looking at both the real-world strategies and ideals of contemporary parents, it becomes apparent that no one model of handling work-family responsibilities describes the majority of American families. In fact, a large minority of families have a parent at home. What’s more, a majority of American parents believe having an at-home parent is ideal for kids.

MORE THAN A THIRD of Families with Children Four and Under Have a Stay-at-Home Parent

As the figure below indicates, 36 percent of families with children four and under have a parent who is at home or not working. Among two-parent families, 32 percent of families with young children have at least one parent at home. Four percent of families with children four and under are headed by a single parent at home. These families would not benefit from a family policy that is focused only on paid child care.

Figure One also indicates that no one model of dividing paid work describes the majority of America’s families with younger children. The biggest group — where both parents work full-time — only accounts for 37 percent of American families with children four and under. Even focusing on two-parent families alone, only 44 percent of these families have parents who both work 35 hours or more per week.

The composition of American families changes a bit when we look at all families — that is families with children 18 and under. But as Figure Two indicates, the basic story remains much the same. Twenty-nine percent of families with children 18 and under have a stay-at-home parent, typically the mother. And, here again, the largest plurality is families with parents who work full time (at 38 percent).

37 Percent of Children Four and Under Have a Stay-at-Home Parent

The picture changes a bit when we focus on the share of children four and under by family type. Because families with a stay-at-home parent tend to be larger, more children are in such families than is indicated by looking at patterns by family, as in Figure One. Indeed, Figure Three indicates that 38 percent of children four and under live with a stay-at-home parent. Moreover, four in ten young children living in two-parent homes have a stay-at-home parent. And only 36 percent of children four and under live in a family where both parents work 35 hours a week or more outside the home. In general, then, as policymakers are considering work-family policies, they should bear in mind not only the composition of families but also the composition of children’s families.

No One Best Way

When we turn to examining the ideal work-family arrangement for parents, no one best way emerges as the option chosen by a majority of mothers. The most popular choice for mothers is to work part-time, with 49 percent selecting this option, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll (see below). Still, what is striking about the poll is that no single approach captures the hearts and minds of a majority of American mothers. On the other hand, a slim majority of fathers — 52 percent — prefer full-time work. But as the figure below indicates, even here we see considerable diversity in fathers’ preferences when it comes to paid work. In general, then, there is no clear consensus about work preferences among the majority of today’s parents.

When it comes to directly considering the care of children, parents’ ideals about stay-at-home parenthood are somewhat different than their ideals about work. That is, both mothers and fathers are more likely to say that having one parent at home is ideal for children, even if that is not the majority preference for fathers or mothers themselves. Among parents with children younger than 18, 56 percent of mothers and 69 percent of fathers say it is better for children to have a parent at home, according to a 2014 Pew Research survey.

Taken together, these findings suggest a measure of ambivalence about juggling paid work, parenting, and family life among many American parents, with the ideal work schedule diverging somewhat from the ideal parenting schedule. As the survey data indicate, parents often value flexible work options and arrangements as they raise children, including the option of having one parent at home full-time for some or all of their children’s lives.

In crafting family policies, including those involving the care of children, policymakers should not lose sight of three social facts: 1) A large minority of families and young children are cared for by at-home parents, 2) Most parents think having a stay-at-home parent is ideal for children, and 3) Most fundamentally, no one model for dividing work and family responsibilities captures the contemporary reality of American family life.

Policymakers should keep this diversity in mind as they put forward tax and child-care policies intended to help all families juggle the demands of work and family life. Most importantly, they should avoid advancing family policies that leave one-third of families with young children out of the picture.


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