As W. Bradford Wilcox recently documented on this blog, over the past few decades American families have become increasingly diverse not only in how they share work and family responsibilities but in how they want to share those responsibilities. For this reason, he argued, "public policies and cultural norms related to work and family should be geared toward maximizing flexibility" rather than toward locking in any one group's ideals.
Yet many countries seem to promote one work-family arrangement over others: the lack of paid parental leave and dearth of part-time jobs pushes some U.S. women out of the workforce entirely, for example, while Sweden's high taxes and government-supported daycare seem designed to keep all parents working full-time whether they want to or not.
British social scientist Catherine Hakim has documented this problem as it plays out in many countries. Examining women's work-family preferences from surveys in multiple nations, she estimates that about 20% of women would prefer to care for children full-time instead of working, approximately 60% of women hope to combine work and family responsibilities, and roughly 20% of women are primarily career-focused. (She does not provide as much data for men, but presumably their preferences also vary.) How can one country's work-family policies help people fulfill such diverse preferences?
Hakim proposes a homecare allowance, a little-known but successful policy implemented to varying degrees in Finland, Norway, and France:
The homecare allowance pays a salary to any parent (typically the mother) who does not use public nurseries and makes their own childcare arrangements. The money becomes a salary for stay-at-home mothers who do the job themselves. Alternatively, it can be used flexibly to pay for informal childcare (by grandparents, trusted neighbors, or friends) or to subsidize private childcare costs. . . .
The allowance is usually paid up to the youngest child's third birthday, is not dependent on the parent's employment record (so is truly universal), and can be linked to job-protected parental leave. The popularity of the policy is reflected in take-up rates of 80 to almost 100 percent.
As her description implies, different parents can spend the allowance in different ways. For a parent who hopes to stay home full-time with a young child, the homecare allowance helps make up for lost income. For parents who want to work but prefer not to leave their child at a daycare center, it can be used to pay a relative or friend to babysit. (The U.S. does not offer universal public child care, obviously, but otherwise the homecare allowance could be similarly successful here.)
Rather than effectively forcing two parents to work full-time in order to generate the taxes that support public childcare, or pushing one reluctant parent out of the workforce because he or she doesn't make enough money to cover the full cost of private childcare, a homecare allowance would help parents fulfill their diverse preferences.
The chances of the U.S. implementing such a policy in a time of strained budgets may be low; however, as Americans look for greater workplace flexibility and seek more public recognition of their family responsibilities, they should take a closer look at this possible solution.