The Free Market Has Failed U.S. Working Parents

Caitlyn Collins

Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor of sociology in Arts & Sciences

Amid the grim landscape of the pandemic and the U.S. election, I see one bright light: American parents have finally realized that the government can and should do far more to support them at work and at home. I study the experiences of working parents in different countries, so friends keep asking me, “Is it this bad everywhere?” My answer is no. Absolutely not.

Other Western industrialized countries have long understood the idea that supportive social policy improves the well-being of their citizens. After all, citizens are former, current, and future workers and taxpayers. Every nation depends on people’s paid labor in the workforce and unpaid labor at home to produce the next generation. Their solutions differ, but other societies agree that the public sector has a responsibility to help reconcile work and family demands.

In the United States, by contrast, our emphasis on free markets and our fixation on personal responsibility means that we lack any coherent work-family policy to support caregiving. We have no universal health care. No universal childcare. No universal social insurance entitlement. No guaranteed basic income. No paid parental leave or illness leave. No federal mandate to compel employers to offer supportive policies to workers with dependent care responsibilities — not even a single vacation or sick day.

This free-market approach has failed families spectacularly. Americans are among the most stressed-out people on the planet. The happiness gap between parents and non-parents is wider here than in any other country belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). We have one of the biggest wage gaps between employed women and men, and it’s even wider when we look specifically at women of color; this inequity diminishes the economic resources available to women’s families. And our children are suffering. One in five live in poverty: a staggering one in three Black children and one in four Hispanic children, compared with one in 10 white children. Roughly one in seven households with children report not having enough to eat on a regular basis.

The pandemic has made a bad situation worse.

Read the full piece in Harvard Business Review.

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