Measures of the interaction of families with the world of work need to extend beyond traditional measures of employment to the status of family-friendly workplace policies and the availability of quality child care for parents during their working hours.
Secure parental employment is critical for a family economic stability. Not only does it provide steady income, but also a secure job is more likely to offer health, retirement and other benefits for the employee and his or her family members. In addition, secure parental employment can contribute to healthy family functioning and psychological well-being, and protect against the stress associated with unemployment, underemployment, and poverty (Mayer, 1997; Smith et al, 1997).
Parental employment status is related to the economic status of children in mother-headed single-parent families. The economic security of children can be affected by gaps in non-resident fathers and custodial mothers income and employment (Bianchi, Subaiya, & Kahn, J.,1999). Furthermore, a high rate of joblessness among black males has been found to be related to their lower likelihood of being present or involved with their families (Wilson & Tolson, 1990). One measure of secure employment is whether at least one parent is employed full-time, full year (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2002).
The quality, not just the stability, of a parental job is important to measure. When working parents earn below minimum wage and have jobs without benefits, they are often not fully able to provide for the needs of their families, and are unable to lift their family above the poverty threshold. This is particularly problematic for single mothers who enter low-complexity jobs, where there is evidence of a lower quality home environment as well (Menahan & Parcel, 1995)
Juggling family and work responsibilities, parents want control over their work schedules. Their needs include having to coordinate child care coverage with another parent or child care provider, to timing arrival at home with the return of children from school, to attending teacher conferences and children doctor appointments. The degree to which parents feel that they can arrange their schedules to meet their family needs is an important aspect of family well-being. While there are many informal arrangements that data systems are not yet able to capture, the availability of flextime schedules to workers is an important piece that is measurable. The age of children in the family is an important feature to consider in this indicator, though flexibility can be crucial for parents with older as well as younger children.
Shift work is quite different than flexible scheduling and has been found to be related to marital instability among couples with children, particularly if the non-standard working hours occur during the week rather than the weekend (Presser, 2000). Factors that are related to marital instability include the type of schedule worked, the gender of the parent working nonstandard hours, and the duration of the marriage.
Family and medical leave as well as paid maternity/paternity leave are workplace policies that allow families to care for newborns and seriously ill family members while maintaining their jobs (Joesch, 1997). It would be important to monitor the availability and use of these policies for all working parents, as well as for working poor parents.
While monitoring the use and availability of these family-friendly policies indicates how parents are using them to juggle their responsibilities, a measure of work-family stress would be important to include in order to capture the degree to which current workplace policies are not going far enough to address parents needs. Measures of the degree to which parents feel overworked, or feel that the demands of their jobs are interfering with their family lives have appeared in various sources, including the National Study of the Changing Workforce, the Iowa Youth and Families Project, and Roper polls. Studies have found that being overworked leads to more work-life conflict, less successful relationships with family members and friends, increased self-neglect, lost sleep, increased health problems, and higher levels of stress (Galinsky, Kim, & Bond, 2001).
New research on the interplay between the social contexts of working parents everyday lives at work, at home, and in public, and their stress levels as measured by cortisol levels in each setting, points to a potential direction for developing new measures of parental stress in each setting (Adam, 2002).
Access to good quality child care is a critical component of balancing work and family responsibilities. A few studies have found a negative relationship between extensive early maternal employment during a child’s first year of life and children’s cognitive outcomes (Brooks Gunn, Han, & Waldfogel, 2002), suggesting that tracking full-time and overtime maternal employment during a child’s first year may be important, though a single measure of work hours may not be the best indicator, if the association is driven by child care quality, stress, conflict, or inflexible work hours. Good quality child care can mediate negative effects of maternal employment, so it is critical to measure the availability of child care, and the trust and confidence that parents have in their provider. Also, family work patterns, more than individual work patterns, may be more relevant to the quality of care and nurturing that children receive. The age of children is an important consideration for these measures. For older children, the availability of before- and after-school programs is a more salient concern.