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Strengthening the American Family After COVID

Family resilience is a bright light in a hard year; let’s build on it.

As a parent, 2020 will long conjure the panic of the Zoom freeze—the technical glitch that frequently separates my child from her online classroom. It’s the virtual equivalent of being unceremoniously tossed out of the classroom into a doorless, digital hallway, and emblematic of the confusing season of disconnection 2020 has brought many of us.

One counterbalance to 2020’s disorganization is the family. There is evidence that relationships between parents, children, and extended family have grown stronger during the COVID-19 pandemic. As authors of the American Family Survey observe, families have been, overall, a source of resilience rather than stress in the face of financial hardship and health fears. But it is also clear that the current economy confronts some families with an unleveled playing field. The pandemic could accelerate these trends, widening the family gap between those in blue-collar occupations and white-collar workers. Given the benefits of family involvement evident during the pandemic, pro-family advocates should aim to secure and consolidate these benefits for all households. Paid family leave and a universal commitment to paid time off are two keys to making pro-family work the standard.

Family time matters: evidence from the pandemic

The pandemic may have strengthened family-life in surprising ways. In the 2020 American Family Survey, the majority of Americans in a relationship said they had more appreciation for their partner because of the COVID-19 pandemic. More married Americans felt their marriage was stronger than in years past. Family identity became even more salient. Eighty percent of those who have children saying their identity as a parent was extremely or very important to them, up from 71 percent in the past. A quarter of Americans say they are living with extended family, more than in recent years.

A shift in family practices and routines could help drive these attitude changes. Families are more likely to say that they ate dinner on a daily basis—54 percent—than they have in the five years prior. A survey of couples conducted in mid-April found that fathers are doing more childcare and household work. With schools and day care centers closed, millions of parents are engaged in child care, homeschooling, and navigating zoom-school—sometimes simultaneously with paid work.

Young people are one of the beneficiaries of this season of family togetherness. Surveying teens in 8th, 10th, and 12th grade, the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) found that rates of depression and loneliness among teens were lower during 2020’s pandemic conditions than they were pre-pandemic in 2018. The authors of the Teens in Quarantine study, Jean Twenge, Sarah Coyne, Brad Wilcox, and Jason Carroll link these improvements in teen mental health to increased sleep and family connection. Significantly more teens report getting at least 7 hours of sleep a night during the pandemic than they did prior to quarantine. Sixty-eight percent of teens said that their families have become closer during the pandemic. Majorities of teens also said they were spending more time talking to parents, that they ate dinner together more often, and felt closer to their family. Those who spent more time with their families and felt their families were closer were less likely to be depressed.

IFS’s findings are consistent with many others linking parental involvement to young people’s health and development. Early parent-child bonding forms the basis for emotional and cognitive development. Parental involvement with teens boosts academic performance and mental health. The benefits from father-child involvement are well-documented: toddlers whose fathers laughed and praised them are less likely to be distressed by frustrating situations, teens do better in school and are more likely to exhibit greater confidence when engaged with a father who expresses love and acceptance.

Though families can be a source of resilience, many are still suffering from the devastations of this year: economic crisis, food and health insecurity, the restricting of community institutions such as churches and schools, and more. According to the American Family Survey, fifty three percent of Hispanic Americans reported employment change for themself or their partner during the pandemic. The unemployment rate for Black Americans remains around 10 percent, twice that of white workers. Parents and children alike, even in otherwise-stable households, will bear the marks of these shocks. Telecommuting mothers, in particular, report higher rates of anxiety—a sign of burnout from the multi-tasking marathon of work, parenting and school help, and care for extended family.

Pandemic-era shifts in work could further tip an unleveled playing field for families

Families emerging as a source of pandemic-resilience is, undoubtedly, good news. But are the patterns of parent-involvement now gaining speed relevant for all households or principally the white-collar workforce?

Writing for the World Economic Forum this summer, Alison Taylor of the Stern School of Business, argued that the pandemic marked an irreversible transition toward the “intangible economy.” And data pointing to increased family togetherness in the pandemic – specifically father-involvement comes, so far, from this sector of the economy. Telecommuting dads are the ones seeing a gain in parent-child time. And while the ranks of teleworking mothers and fathers might grow as more work shifts online, there is a ceiling to their numbers. By one recent account, only 37 percent of all American jobs can plausibly be performed at home.

Many telecommuting-ready jobs are white collar jobs occupied by those with college and advanced degrees. According to economists Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman, “whereas most jobs in finance, corporate management, professional and scientific services can plausibly be performed at home, very few jobs in agriculture, hotels and restaurants, or retail could be.” Telecommuting-ready jobs, they note, are more commonly found in San Jose than in Grand Rapids.

For the past decade, it has become increasingly clear that access to the benefits of family life – for children and for adults alike—has become divided by class and education. Americans with a college degree were more likely to be married, to report satisfaction in their marriage and to, potentially, pass along the benefits of marital stability to their children.

The pandemic has the potential to widen the class gap in family well-being, establishing a gap in family-time by occupation. Those participating in the shift to remote work, could enjoy truly family-supportive benefits: more control over one’s schedule, a reduction in commuting that frees up time for child care, homework help, and the family dinner. But big questions remain for that large portion of the workforce—the vehicle operators, restaurant workers, school teachers and those engaged in other tangible occupations. In order for these workers to see the same family-time gains that some telecommuters have experienced during the pandemic, pro-family work needs to mean something other than the opportunity to clock in from a home office.

To shore up family resilience, make pro-family work the standard

“Trust, respect, and entitlement to be in one another’s lives only develop with time and hard work,” wrote Diana Garland, a Baylor University-based scholar who pioneered research into family and spirituality, observing that strong families are not established overnight. Family-involvement is a habit that strengthens with practice.

A pro-family recovery from the pandemic should strengthen the norms and concrete conditions that enable parent-child involvement and family togetherness in all sectors of the economy. Pro-family advocates should offer bold prescriptions. Guaranteeing paid parental leave for all families would be an excellent start, followed by establishing a month or more of paid time off annually as the standard across occupations.

Parental involvement in a child’s life often leads to more involvement. This is true for mothers and fathers alike. Fathers who take longer paternity leave following the birth of a child have found to be more involved in child care activities nine months later than those with shorter leaves. A group of nine-year olds whose fathers had taken two weeks or more of paid parental leave were more likely to report positive perceptions about their fathers’ involvement, father-child closeness, and communication than do those whose fathers did not take leave. One plausible explanation: early paternal care helps establish or cement parenting habits, identities, and co-parent cooperation around caregiving.

For mothers, paid maternity leave is associated with an increase in breastfeeding between mothers and infants, timely medical visits and vaccinations for children. One study of the long-term impact of California’s paid family leave program found that mothers who had access to leave reduced or modified their work hours, suggesting increased time investments in child care. A longitudinal study of Norway’s 1977 paid leave program indicated that mothers who utilized this program increased the time spent with children. The children of leave-taking mothers were less likely to drop out of high school and earned more in wages at age 30 than children whose parents lacked access to the program.

Policy-makers should take every opportunity to develop a national paid family leave policy. A growing number of states have enacted paid leave policies in the footprint of the unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act which guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid time off to care for a new child, a family member with a serious medical condition or one’s own medical recovery. A federal policy along these lines could provide coherence and predictability to employers and families alike while rapidly expanding parental care for young children.

Lyman Stone and I have argued that a child-centered parental leave policy should maximize the time a young child receives care from a parent. We proposed a flat-rate benefit of $600 per child, per caregiving week. It should enable at least 18 weeks of parent-caregiving to be allocated between both parents and be available for prenatal and postnatal care alike. Paid parental leave should not be a ‘gotcha’ policy with complicated eligibility standards, extensive requirements, or trade-offs. Pro-family policies should exhibit high predictability and low barriers to access, helping to establish family time and parental involvement as a public norm.

The experiences of expecting mothers and new parents during the coronavirus pandemic illustrate why stalling on paid family leave is unconscionable. Since the start of the pandemic in March, over 36,000 pregnant women have tested positive. COVID-positive rates are higher for Black and Hispanic women, a disparity that may arise from more rigid work conditions. A parental leave program that enables pregnant women to take leave from work if needed, combined with better access to workplace accommodations, is urgently needed.

Although parent-child bonding at the beginning of life is crucial, the persistence of that bond through subsequent developmental seasons matters just as much. The large blocks of time covered by family leave programs are not well-adapted to care for ordinary illnesses, parent-teacher meetings, family vacations, checking in on aging parents. Pro-family policy should, therefore, also secure for workers a flexible, but consistent reserve of time for family involvement.

Scholars Isabell Sawhill and Richard Reeves argue that American workers should universally have access to a month of paid time off each year. The proposal implicitly highlights the stingy time off offerings available to many families. Nearly a quarter of the workforce does not have access to paid vacation days. The typical worker earns 7 to 8 paid sick days a year. Only those workers with longer employment tenures achieve four weeks or more of annual paid vacation.

The reasons given by Americans unable to take time off when they needed it are illustrative. A majority of individuals in this situation cite one or more of the following: fear of negative consequences at work, could not afford income loss (from unpaid time off), did not have access to leave, did not have enough leave, or wanted to save leave for another purpose. In other words, workers who need to take care of themselves, enjoy a family vacation, or take a loved one to the doctor need to be eagle-eyed about their time.

Under current circumstances, the telecommuting jobs that facilitate regular parent involvement through proximity are also more likely to offer paid time off to achieve the same goal. Eighty percent of workers whose jobs offer work-from-home flexibility also provide paid leave. But, of workers whose jobs do not afford work-from-home flexibility, only 60 percent enjoy paid leave benefits. Likewise, workers without college degrees are less likely to be able to take time off than are workers with a college degree or higher.

Guaranteeing at least a month of paid time off would help establish a time-reserve for family needs for workers in the tangible economy as well as the virtual one. Policy-makers could avoid adverse impact on small employers and job creation by accompanying paid leave requirements with tax credits targeted toward smaller employers and/or newly hired employees.

Family togetherness and family resilience is one of the bright spots in the pandemic. But, pro-family work should not depend upon a future in which corporate and work-life is, in Allison Taylor’s term, “growing less material.”

Americans famously and proudly work long hours: “200 to 400 more hours per year than workers in most European countries.” This admirable work ethic could, however, create a family time gap, particularly for those whose jobs are not easily moved into a home office. Guaranteeing paid family leave and a reliable reserve of paid time off helps ensure that work is, unreservedly, pro-family.

Rachel Anderson, Resident Fellow, Center for Public Justice. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelHopeAnd.