In June the White House held its first ever Summit on Working Families. As part of his promised “year of action” he presented in his State of the Union Address, President Obama, along with the Department of Labor and the Center for American Progress laid out concrete initiatives designed to focus on the specific needs of working families. The summit focused on how the changing demographics of the American family require a different approach to the economics of working, as well as workplace policies in need of updating for businesses to maintain top talent.
An August 2013 report released by the Census Bureau highlighted some of the distinct changes in American families since 1970. They looked at data from various reports highlighting the population characteristics of families over the years. The report focused on 2007-2009, the height of the worldwide economic recession, for comparison, though data through 2012 was included. It looked at various factors which included economic, geography and gender.
The structure of the 39 million families with children under 18 varied but the primary family structure is still a two parent family, though the families have fewer children than they did even a decade earlier. While a stay at home parent has steadily been decreasing since women entered the workforce, the need for both parents working spiked dramatically in the previous decade. The recession also saw a greater increase in intergenerational families, such as a grandparent, an adult child(ren) and grandchild(ren).
Regardless of the structure, all families with children saw a decline in their economic welfare since 2007.
The Census Bureau report did see an increase in single parent families, especially with the number headed by single fathers. Interestingly, homes headed by a single father were generally more economically advantaged than those headed by women. The report noted that this was largely due to the fact that most fathers who became single parents did so because of divorce and were usually older and a home owner, meaning they were more economically stable at the time they became a single parent. Single mothers, on the other hand, were more likely to have never been married or own a home.
Most children that lived with one parent were living with their mother, though the number of single father homes increased to 17 percent, representing 44 percent of all children living in single parent homes.
The recession saw greater job losses, especially among men, and more women having to pick up the slack. If both parents worked, often they were working at part-time jobs with fewer benefits, if they had any at all. Furthermore, the wage gap for women weighed heavily on families, as whatever income brought in would often not match what the men in the family would make.
This wage gap is also why single parent homes headed by women were the most economically disadvantaged.
With an increase in part-time jobs, there was also an increase temporary and contract employment. As the economy began to slowly recover, many firms were still wary of doing massive hiring. This led to the use of staffing firms and more temp-to-hire positions, where workers were hired temporarily with the plan to eventually hire permanently. There was also a rise in freelancers who would work on a negotiated contract for a specific amount of time.
All of these stresses make it that much harder for single parent homes.
One of the greatest expenses for families is childcare. Families often spend more than their rent or mortgage on childcare, if they can find quality care at all. A recent Washington Post article highlighted how in most states, daycare exceeds the cost of in-state tuition and fees at state colleges. Many programs that help lower-income families, such as Head Start, have been cut over the recent years, leaving families with pre-kindergarten age children with few or no options. Of course, even once they are in school, working families still have the issue of what to do for after school care as budget cuts have further eliminated these programs. Families are often forced to choose between working and leaving their children in unsafe situations.
It’s these issues and more that the Summit on Working Families sought to address.
Things like increasing the minimum wage to a living wage and passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would hold employers more accountable for wage discrimination against women, would go a long way at decreasing the poverty rate of families with children. It is still legal in many states to fire an employee just because she is pregnant, and the United States is the only developed nation which does not require paid maternity leave. Most states also do not have paid family leave and many companies don’t provide paid sick leave.
Flexible working hours and conditions would also bring tremendous relief to families with children. Telecommuting or the ability to alter hours that coincide with the needs of school-aged children and their care would allow parents to provide for and, most importantly, be with their family. While it’s understandable that some jobs require being at a work site during certain hours, technology has created a myriad of options for people to do their jobs well, yet not needed in the office at all times.
While these policies would benefit all families, single parent households have the most to gain.
As with all of the President’s initiatives, he is limited by how far the Executive Branch can go without the legislative efforts of Congress. Many of these policies have already been presented and rejected by the Republicans in Congress . Still, as is characteristic of his presidency, President Obama has started the conversation. His personal experience gives him a unique perspective that many political leaders, and most former presidents, don’t have.
As he wrote in an OpEd at the Huffington Post, these issues are personal. “As the son and grandson of some strong women who worked hard to support my sister and me; as the husband of a brilliant woman who struggled to balance work and raising our young ladies when my job often kept me away; and as the father of two beautiful girls, whom I want to be there for as much as I possibly can — and whom I hope will be able to have families and careers of their own one day.”