United States In Last Freaking Place for Policies That Help Parents

In a study of 20 developed countries and 200,000 kids, the United States ranked dead last in policies that support kids and their parents.

A kid and their dad sit in front of the television in black and white

Parents are well-aware that national policies supporting a work-life balance are all but non-existent. In the US, employers aren’t required to offer paid maternity leave, paid vacation time, or paid sick leave. That’s largely why the US ranks dead last in parent support policies among 20 industrialized countries, according to a new study.

It may seem impossible to both financially support your kids and find time to spend with them. Now there’s data to back up that this worry isn’t all in your head — and it’s because the US government is failing you.

That’s an issue not just for the obvious reasons, but because benefits for parents at work are directly linked to child wellbeing, according to a new study in the journal Social Forces. Children’s self-rated health and life satisfaction were higher in countries with more generous work flexibility and paid leave policies, researchers found by studying about 200,000 children in 20 developed countries.

Traditionally, it’s been up to each U.S. business to decide what work-family accommodations it offers, said Matthew Andersson, a sociologist at Baylor University and lead author of the study, in a press release. But if the federal government required these benefits, children in the U.S. would have some of the largest health improvements out of any developed country.

The researchers found that one parental support policy doesn’t actually improve children’s health: giving cash directly to parents, either as income support or for childcare. In other words, Biden’s child tax credit alone isn’t going to make kids healthier. But that doesn’t mean the money won’t help struggling parents, and it’s important for fighting hunger and homelessness too, which does make kids healthier in its own way.

“Cash transfers only give money,” Andersson said. “Paid parental leave and work flexibility gives parents time plus money — and that seems to be the key combination to combating inequalities in children’s health across developed nations.”

Past research has shown that work flexibility and paid leave lead to happier parents too. Work-family conflict, often caused by overworking, is linked with lower parental health and more marriage strain. Countries with better paid time off policies and childcare subsidies see less of a difference in happiness between adults with and without kids.

Parents lower down on the socioeconomic ladder are less likely to have these benefits, and their kids suffer all the more for it. “Not surprisingly, advantaged families tend to be attached to higher-quality jobs where benefits are available regardless of federal mandate,” Andersson said. But more generous federal-mandated benefits could lessen the resulting gap in children’s wellbeing. “As national work-family policy improves, inequalities in children’s health lessen between advantaged and disadvantaged families,” he said.