Family matters: Do workplace policies make it harder to have kids?

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Article Marriage and Family
Parenting can be a costly, time-consuming endeavor. Can the church help make American workplaces more family-friendly?

Brookes Ebetsch took only a long weekend off work after giving birth to her daughter in Texas in 2011. Her employer didn’t offer paid leave, and she and her husband couldn’t afford to take the financial hit of having her take weeks off. Her daughter, Sabina, arrived on a Thursday and Ebetsch was back at work on Monday.

“I wish I could work less,” says Ebetsch, who now lives in northern Illinois, where she moved to be closer to family after her daughter was born. “When I have another baby at some point, I would love to take three months off or more. There absolutely are advantages to working: You get mental exercise and my daughter gets to play with other people. But part of me thinks, wouldn’t it be great to be home a little more and not go to bed thinking about work? To think about my family instead?”

Ebetsch isn’t the only parent to face such a dilemma, and though the Catholic Church takes pride in its reputation as an institution that prioritizes family life, there is a much broader range of “pro-family” issues than the ones most people define that way these days.

Things like adequate child care, family leave policies, union membership, and many more issues have a direct impact on whether men and women feel financially prepared to have children and spend adequate time with them. Though the workplace is in many ways the opposite of home, its values and policies have a direct bearing on employees’ family lives, and many wonder why the church isn’t more vocal about such issues.

High price of parenting

This is an expensive era in which to be an American parent. Since 1960, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been keeping track of how much it costs to raise a child from birth to age 17. In 2011, the latest year for which numbers are available, two-parent, two-child households with incomes of less than $59,410 spent between $8,760 and $9,970—or about 25 percent of their income—on necessities such as housing, child care, and food per child a year.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. Adjusted for inflation, the lifetime cost of raising a child born in 2011 will be roughly 23 percent higher than for a child born in 1960. In particular, the costs of health care and child care have risen significantly over the last several decades. A report last year from the advocacy group Child Care Aware found that in 35 states the average cost of day care is now higher than the cost of in-state tuition and fees at a four-year college.

For single parents and those living in poverty, the numbers are even more dire. The average cost of infant care alone would eat up 38 percent of a typical single parent’s income. And while the costs of parenthood rise, median family income is lower today than at any point since the mid ’90s.

The collective weight of these pressures not only makes family life difficult but also makes families less likely to sprout up in the first place. The average age of first motherhood in the United States is now 25—up from 21 in 1970—and the U.S. birth rate hit a record low in 2011.

In December Catholic columnist Ross Douthat in the New York Times suggested progressive solutions to this dilemma, including government efforts to reduce the cost of a college education, expanding the availability of flexible work hours, and a more family-friendly tax code. “A more secure economic foundation beneath working-class Americans would presumably help promote childbearing as well,” he wrote. “Stable families are crucial to prosperity and mobility, but the reverse is also true, and policies that make it easier to climb the economic ladder would make it easier to raise a family as well.”

Ebetsch, the Illinois mother of one, agrees, calling the decision of when to have more children a “complex chess game” because of the financial issues involved.

Ric Schmidt, a Catholic father of four in Wisconsin who has worked for the delivery service UPS since 1984, is acutely aware of the connection between having a steady job and family stability. As a unionized hourly worker, he is now paid at the top of the pay scale, and he credits his union job with providing a solid foundation for his family. The Schmidts are involved in their parish, the PTA, and other local organizations, and Schmidt says his wife’s presence at home means he’s never had a day where he’s worried about his children’s safety. “But you have to have that sustaining job first, and so many people don’t have that,” he says. “You just need one job with a living wage—just one!—and (for many people) it’s not there.”

But a living wage is only one of the concerns parents have when it comes to a stable family life. As a devastating joint report from the Center for American Progress and the Center for WorkLife Law summarized in 2010, Americans “lack paid sick days, limits on mandatory overtime, the right to request work-time flexibility without retaliation, and proportional wages for part-time work.” All of these policies, the report found, exist elsewhere in the developed world.

A major international survey taken in 1997 found that 90 percent of American mothers and 95 percent of fathers wish they could spend more time with their families—numbers significantly higher than those in other industrialized countries. (See sidebar “American parents: exhausted & unhappy” on page 15 for more on how the United States compares to other countries on workplace policies.)

Meanwhile, Americans work more hours than citizens of most other developed countries; by the mid-2000s the average middle-income family put in 11 more work hours a week than they did 25 years earlier. In 1960 just 20 percent of mothers worked outside the home. Today about 65 percent do, and among those working mothers about three quarters work full-time.

Cultural factors are surely in play here, but it’s not clear that all these women are working full-time because of advances in feminism. A Pew Forum survey in 2009 found that more than 60 percent of mothers of young children with full-time jobs would prefer to work part-time instead. Some wonder whether this is a portrait of family life that any truly pro-family institution can be satisfied with.

“The church cannot be complacent about how the moral failures of the American economy are impacting family life,” says Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington. Schneck points to Pope Leo XIII and his groundbreaking 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor) as an example of the church’s teaching that moral economics are linked to strong families.

“At the heart of that linkage is the idea of a living wage,” he says. “A living wage is one sufficient for a single worker to be able to support her or his family, while at the same time providing a quality of life with time enough for practicing the faith and participating in community. Since the 1960s both real wages and minimum wages for American workers have eroded such that very few workers have anything close to a living wage. We have a moral obligation as Catholics to address this.”

Schmidt echoes this when he talks about how he wishes the church would do more to support organized labor, which has been so important for his own family’s stability. “Wealth in corporate organizations is being concentrated in the hands of very few. This is where our bishops ought to really step up, and they’re not doing that,” he says. “We just don’t hear anything (about it from the bishops) anymore, and it’s very frustrating.”

Families valued

The church has a long history of explicitly making the connection between economic well-being and spiritual and familial health. It has also frequently made clear that concern for families isn’t just a matter for private charity. Pope Pius XI wrote in his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage), now remembered primarily for its statement of the church’s position on contraception, that marriage and family life are greatly dependent upon employment and the ability of the family to afford “the necessities of life,” including food, housing, and medicine.

In 1991, the U.S. Catholic Conference—which in 2001 became the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)—echoed these themes in a pastoral statement called Putting Children and Family First. The bishops made a forceful case that “our church must be an ally and advocate for parents as they struggle to meet their children’s needs at home and in an often hostile world where powerful economic and social forces can overwhelm the love and care of a family.”

The document argues that wage discrimination, limited access to child care, and what it calls “anti-family welfare, tax, health, and workplace policies” are all hindrances to a healthy family life.

John Carr, the USCCB’s former longtime policy advisor, helped craft that document. He says that part of the beauty of the church is its ability to speak to the moral dimensions of the economy and the workplace. “One thing about the Catholic Church that’s really important is some people look at moral forces threatening family life, others look at economic threats to family life, but we look at both,” he explains.

“Families are challenged and threatened in lots of ways. Sometimes children are considered a burden, not a gift,” says Carr, who retired from the USCCB last year. “But it’s also true that economic forces threaten family life. There are a lot of things that are demoralizing to parents. Not being able to provide for kids or not having a job undermines parents in fundamental ways.”

Carr says that one of the most important things he worked on during his tenure at the bishops’ conference was lobbying for the federal child tax credit and making sure it was refundable, which means it helps even very low-income working families. The tax credit, which reduces parents’ tax bills by up to $1,000 per child, “rewards work and affirms family life. Those are things our country ought to do and especially our church ought to do,” he says.

Indeed, the church has been outspoken on issues that affect the very poor. Along with countless long-term aid projects, last year the USCCB launched PovertyUSA.org, a website offering resources and tools to raise awareness about poverty in America. The USCCB also recently helped form the Circle of Protection, an interfaith Christian coalition that lobbies to protect government programs that help the poor. The Circle of Protection asserts that budgets are moral documents, and in the past year the church has been deeply involved in preserving protections for low-income families in the federal budget.

Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development for the USCCB, is deeply sympathetic to the connection between economic issues and family life. “We have an obligation through public policy and through society to preserve the common good,” she says. “That should be the endgame of our policies: How does this lift up the common good? That includes jobs that come with health care benefits, a living wage, some sick days, and even some vacation days so you can spend time with your family.”

But some are concerned that the bishops have spent far less time speaking about these issues than they have focusing on other policy concerns, namely the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) mandate that employers’ health insurance plans must cover contraception and sterilization. No one paying even the slightest attention to the American Catholic Church last year could have missed its crusade against this policy, which included two weeks in June and July designated as the “Fortnight for Freedom.” In Nebraska, 147 Catholic churches displayed banners bearing slogans like “Religious Liberty: Our Most Cherished Freedom” in October, and Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois required all priests in his diocese to read aloud a letter on the issue from the pulpit the weekend before the election. It’s an understatement to say that Poverty USA and the Circle of Protection have received significantly less attention.

“It’s great that the American bishops have spoken out boldly with concerns about some of the details of the HHS mandate, even getting into details about what role is appropriate for insurance plan administrators,” says Schneck. “Needed too, though, are the bishops’ bold, volume-turned-up-high voices about policies that are desperately needed to strengthen American families in the face of the economic conditions that are eroding them. There is a moral cause in helping families survive. We need more episcopal shouting about things like paid family leave, workplace flexibility, and minimum wages.”

Work-life balance

Melissa Barber lives just outside of Washington and has three daughters between ages 2 and 15. Soon after Barber first married, she worked for General Electric as a technical marketing engineer in New York. Then her first daughter was born five weeks early, and Barber was required to return to work when her still-fragile girl was just six weeks old. She immediately gave two weeks’ notice. “GE is a huge company,” she says. “They just wanted your blood, sweat, and tears. I couldn’t do enough. I was doing everything I could and I still wasn’t doing that well. I just said, ‘This is so stupid. Why am I doing this?’ ”

Afterward, Barber tried law school, thinking that a law career would offer more flexibility. Indeed she was able to work part-time without benefits for a supportive firm before moving to Virginia. But when her third daughter was born weighing just 1 pound, 4 ounces, Barber took another step backward for the sake of her family.

This time she focused on patent searching, which required even fewer hours and offered much greater flexibility. But she and her family still struggle, especially when it comes to decisions like whether they can afford the high cost of Catholic schools for their children. “There’s only so much a person can do,” Barber says. “It’s just kind of evolved, and we keep thinking about what’s working here and what’s not.”

Barber says she has no regrets about the compromises she made in order to spend more time with her daughters. But is it possible to imagine her story could have turned out differently? What if she didn’t have to quit her corporate job in order to get a bit more time at home with her first child? What if she didn’t have to pursue an expensive, time-consuming law degree in order to get the professional flexibility she wanted for this particular season in her life? What if GE would have allowed her more paid leave or offered her part-time work? These are questions the modern American workplace, still mired in the mid-century ideal of the single breadwinner model, has only just begun to grapple with.

It isn’t only women who are forced to give up careers for the sake of family; the number of full-time stay-at-home fathers has increased sharply over the last decade. Jack Reynolds gave up working full-time to support his wife, who is currently a tenured mathematician at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. As Reynolds puts it in talking to his wife, “You have a career, I have a job.” He cares for the family’s three children; over the years he has run an after-school math program, volunteered with the homeless, and coached youth soccer.

After the birth of their first child, Reynolds’ wife had to go back to work the next month, which he says was “a bit torturous.” (By the time the couple’s other two children were born, her union had successfully fought for a full semester of maternity leave.) Now that his youngest is in school, Reynolds, 55, says he would like to get back to full-time work, but it’s hard to figure out where he fits in. “I’m at the age where I’m facing ageism, and the economy is shifting and all that,” he says. “I’m adaptable, but it’s a bit daunting.”

Many families simply remain grateful for what they have been able to build together, no matter how they make it work. Rob Pluta, a lawyer in Chicago, and his stay-at-home wife have five children under 11. He makes an effort to be home in time for dinner and family prayers, but often he has to return to the office afterward or work at home late into the night. When he travels, he uses Skype to say evening prayers with his family. “There’s nothing about my job that makes it easy to be a parent,” he says. “What makes it easier to be a parent is my wife.”

Matt Yonke, assistant communications director for the Pro-Life Action League, says that the saving grace for his family is the support of a close-knit group of other Byzantine-rite Catholics in his parish and neighborhood. “We go to church together, we hang out together, we watch each other’s kids, we work out together, we work together,” he says. “There’s very few aspects of our lives that aren’t pretty intertwined.” He and his stay-at-home wife have four children, and are expecting more. “I couldn’t imagine doing it without the other families in our parish.”

Yonke’s family isn’t rich by any means; he earns about $48,000 a year. But he and his wife have many of the resources that contribute to stability: education, a strong marriage, deep spiritual lives, good health, and a local support network. For parents with less, making sure children are well cared for and considering the possibility of having more children are considerably more complicated issues.

Tough choices

For struggling low-income families, a patchwork safety net of government programs is intended to fill in the gaps. These programs work toward that goal, starting from the very beginning—one third of all births in America are paid for by Medicaid, for example. But children and families receive less help from the government than some politicians suggest. Though many parents would qualify for child care subsidy payments, the government estimates that only 17 percent of eligible families receive them.

These are matters of economic policy, of course, but they’re also fundamentally family issues. Saile of the USCCB points out that one full-time job at the federal minimum wage pays about $15,000 a year, which is more than $3,000 below the poverty line. “So that’s when you have to start making choices,” she says. “Do I stay home with my child or do both parents go out to work? Do I help with my child’s homework or find a second job so we can get clothes and school supplies? Do I have time to sit down with my child for dinner or just grab something as we go between jobs? I don’t think there’s any doubt that that’s harmful to a family.”

A study published last year by the Journal of Marriage and Family found low-income couples are significantly more likely to divorce than their higher-income peers—not because they don’t value marriage but because their marriages are weakened by economic and social pressures.

For single parents the choices are even more stark—and in fact are often not really choices at all. Mary Pimental is a single mother of five children in Los Angeles; her husband died suddenly a decade ago, when her oldest children were in their mid-teens. “It was very traumatic. I had to start all over,” she says. When her husband died, she had been volunteering with Head Start. She sometimes relied on food banks to get by and took advantage of CalWORKs, a California program that provides aid to needy families.

Now Pimental works as a full-time family development advocate for Head Start, earning about $1,900 in take-home pay a month while helping young families connect with the services she once relied on. “I feel like I was in those families’ shoes when I hear those stories,” she says. “I’ve come a long way with the support of the people here.”

Despite Pimental’s relatively low income, she credits her employer with making her family life easier, not harder. Her office offers flexibility in the form of extended hours, in which employees occasionally work from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., instead of 8 to 5, giving them time in the morning to attend to other matters. “For me as a parent that works very, very [well], because during that time I’m able to make appointments, check in with teachers, and do other personal things that I [normally] cannot do,” she says. “I’m very grateful.”

Becket Gremmels, a medical ethicist working at a Catholic hospital in Nashville, is also grateful for the benefits his job provides. Gremmels says his employer pays its workers a socially just wage, and although he’s effectively on call around the clock, his hours are flexible, which allows him to be more available to his wife and their 1-year-old son.

Still, Gremmels believes more could be done to help parents in the workplace; he says the Catholic Church should take an active role in advocating for more family-friendly policies. His employer, for example, offers the state-required minimum of 16 weeks unpaid maternity leave, but Gremmels wishes some of that leave would be paid, with the possibility to extend the length of unpaid leave for parents who want to take more time. But the church remains silent on such issues.

“The rare times where you hear something about social justice, it’s about socially just wages or layoffs,” says Gremmels. “It’s not about how we can rearrange our policies to be supportive of family life. I can’t tell you the last time I heard that. It’s there when you read the encyclicals, but you don’t hear it in homilies or in newsletters.

“If we’re going to be this pro-life, pro-family church, there’s definitely room for improvement.”

This article appeared in the June 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 6, pages 12-17).

Image: iStock/Justin Horrocks and iStock/Joni_R