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3 Steps to Support Low-Wage Families

A recent data from the Census Bureau can attest, families are a far cry from their composition forty years ago. 

A growing number of mothers serve as the sole or primary provider in the family and fathers are now making up a growing share of single parent households. While raising children is an important and rewarding experience for parents, it becomes even more challenging as parents struggle to balance work and family responsibilities.

This juggling act is made worse when parents are unable to make ends meet - something especially true for low-wage workers who endure stagnant wages, unpredictable work schedules, and frequently face the threat of long-term unemployment for themselves and their working family members. 

While one-quarter of all U.S. workers are in low-paying jobs, women constitute a majority (55.1 percent) of the low-wage workforce. Many of these women are single moms, and the reality for these single-parent families is that they are three times as likely to have low incomes compared to married families with children.

Compared to higher-wage workers, low-wage workers are less likely to work regular daytime schedules and more likely to have part-time jobs. Unfortunately, a growing proportion of jobs are limited to part-time opportunities: the number of individuals employed part-time due to economic reasons has increased over the last decade from roughly 4.6 million in the summer of 2003 to 8.2 million today.

From a purely economic standpoint, parents earning low wages are not gaining the financial traction they need and their children often experience the consequences of growing up poor. According to a 2012 study from the Center for Social Policy, children of low-wage parents are more likely to drop out of school, experience poor health, and have their own children at a young age.

This does not have to be the future of our children. There are three broad actions we can take today to mitigate the challenges that low-wage workers and their children face tomorrow.

  1. We must begin to acknowledge the role that the business community plays in the lives of working parents and call on them to take action. While parents have a very important part to play in ensuring children have the caring relationships and environments they need for healthy development, businesses have an equally important role in ensuring children receive quality parental support during their critical first years. It is frequently the case that low-wage and part-time workers experience unequal access to traditional workplace benefits such as paid leave, health insurance, or retirement savings. These benefits help working parents achieve a work-life balance that allows them to care for a sick child, care for themselves or manage a family emergency. When working parents do not have the workplace flexibility they need to manage routine family duties or unpredictable crises, they can suffer negative employment repercussions or sacrifice the health and well-being of their families. According to a study from the Families and Work Institute, 75% of employed parents don’t feel like they have enough time with their children. For low-wage workers, unpredictable schedules and workplace instability result in missing quality time with their children.
  2. Advocates must help employers recognize the benefits of flexibility in the workplace. A growing body of research highlights the gains that businesses can achieve when they offer employees flexible work environments and promote policies that build positive work-family balance (e.g., flexible scheduling, telecommuting, paid and unpaid leave). When employers offer flexibility, employees are more likely to experience greater job satisfaction and engagement in their work, show stronger commitment and retention to their employer, and achieve greater productivity—positive results that irrefutably improve the bottom-line.  
  3. The business community should begin implementing flexible policies that support low-wage workers and their families. When low-wage parents have the ability to spend time with their children and care for them without fear of employer retribution, they can more effectively provide the quality parenting experiences that their children deserve. For employers of low-wage workers, the solutions can be as straightforward as giving workers greater scheduling predictability and stability. Specifically, employers can provide more advance notice of employee schedules or scheduling modifications. Forecasting work schedules allows employees to make necessary arrangements such as securing child care, finding time for family, or obtaining reliable transportation. Stability can be achieved by providing employees with more certainty about the number of hours they are scheduled to work and employers can set a minimum number of hours or guarantee days or shifts so employees have more consistent work periods and greater certainty over their expected income.

San Francisco and Vermont are making strides to build a culture of family-friendly practices for all employers. While San Francisco’s proposed Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance represents a big opportunity to the allow for better flexibility and work balance for families, Vermont has successfully implemented their worker flexibility proposal, showing that progress, while halting, is possible. By giving all employees the “right to request” predictable and flexible work hours, communities can overcome challenges to child care access and affordability, reduce stressful work environments, and assist businesses all at the same time. 

Looking to the future of our children, there is a great opportunity for the business community to serve as positive agents of change and engage in a conversation about how to support working parents, their children, and ultimately the nation’s future workforce.

Flexible, family-friendly practices represent one approach that directly enhances the quality of life for young children and supports the life course of the working parents who care for them.

For more tips and information on how the best news, science, and research can help parents, businesses, and communities develop the best environment for kids, sign up for alerts from Too Small to Fail, an initiative of Next Generation and the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. 

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