Friday, December 21, 2007

The Costs of a Family-Unfriendly America

A couple of months ago in honor of Halloween, asked its members "What's really scary for American moms?" Nearly 200 struggling moms from all walks of life posted their scary stories -- middle-class moms "opting out" of their careers as the skyrocketing costs of daycare no longer made fiscal sense for their families; moms with little or no health coverage praying that they or their children never get sick; single moms struggling to make ends meet. It painted a very sad picture of a country clearly failing its most critical resource -- its mothers.

Unfortunately, the personal struggles of our nation's moms are likely to go unnoticed and unappreciated by our nation's lawmakers and corporate leaders. The picture that's more likely to move those in power is the one that's yet to be painted and is likely the scariest story of all -- the bottom line costs of failing America's families.

I'm no social economist, but consider the logical consequences of a country that demands too much of our nation's parents with little or no support:

The Health Care Burden
It's long been documented that the American worker is over-stressed due a variety of factors including loss of leisure time and extreme work demands and those that are raising families suffer the worst. Countless studies in the last two decades clearly link stress to a multitude of health ailments from cardiovascular disease to psychological and musculoskeletal disorders. One very recent Harvard study even goes so far as to suggest that women in the workforce are shortening their husbands lifespans by as much as 10 years due to stress. While this study draws ire from working moms as it lays the blame squarely at our feet, it shows a clear correlation between working moms and dads in America and negative health effects. Given the number of emotional meltdowns my husband has had to endure as I've tried to balance work and family, I really can't dispute these findings.

Shoving pistachio nuts into my mouth last night crunching to make a work deadline, I was reminded that our country's obesity epidemic goes hand in hand with stress. One only has to watch a few episodes of Oprah to know that stress-induced overeating is rampant in our country, particularly among women, and is likely a key underlying cause of our obesity problem (if my pistachio nut example wasn't scientific enough for you, here's a study from the UK with more empirical proof). Another is our lack of time to make healthy foods for our families or time to be physically active combined with the accessibility and convenience of fast and processed foods. This recent study links the number of hours a woman works to her childrens' BMI. Again, many interpret these studies as "blaming" women when the true underlying cause is an inflexible work culture that demands too much of our time. According to the CDC, obesity accounts for approximately 9% of our national medical bill or $93 billion.

Lost Productivity
Stress, obesity and its associated health effects are leading causes of workplace absences. But companies are also losing highly educated and well trained employees to the "opt-out phenomenon" -- documented by sociologist Pamela Stone, among others -- college- and professionally-educated women leaving their demanding jobs as a desperate measure to reclaim their sanity. My own microcosm bears this out as all of the mothers I know (including me) -- all college-educated career women prior to becoming mothers -- have left, downsized or sacrificed their careers in some way. There are also many mothers who simply can't make work work -- the costs of daycare exceeds their income or leaves very little of it to be worth it. These women leave their jobs not by choice but because they can't "afford" to work. Employee turnover has long been documented as a major drain on business but corporate America has yet to take a good hard look at how the loss of working mothers affects their turnover rates and their bottom line.

Failing our Youth
Research has long shown that the hours immediately after school are prime hours for juvenile crime. Our nation has tried to alleviate this problem by allocating significant funds for after-school programs that help provide supportive environments for "at-risk" kids -- those who are unsupervised after school. Federal cuts in these programs are a constant threat and states continually struggle to keep these programs sufficiently funded. Law enforcement claims that these programs are proven to cut crime rates and save at-risk youth from becoming career criminals, there is tremendous need to expand these programs. Is there another solution? How much money might we save simply by allowing for flexible work schedules? If parents were allowed to work their work schedules around their children's school schedules, how many children could be taken out of the after-school system leaving room to serve those kids who are truly "at risk" (i.e., those whose home lives are less than desirable)? Crime translates to billions of dollars for taxpayers and crime victims.

Overtaxing our Social Welfare System
Of course the greatest burden of a family-unfriendly American falls on low income families. These are families who despite doing everything right -- working diligently to support their families -- are barely getting by (much less getting ahead) and are often one misstep away from a financial crisis. These families tend to have jobs with lower wages, no benefits and little or no flexibility. Once these families fall on hard times, they must rely on our welfare system. Emory health economist Kenneth E. Thorpe has estimated that unpaid hospital bills, mostly a result of uninsured patients, cost $45 billion which increases insurance costs by 8.5%. This recent report from the Urban Institute begins to outline the support that would help low income families meet their family responsibilities while doing right by their employers and even highlights some success stories. How much could we reduce our nation's welfare costs and/or our unpaid health care bill by implementing some of these common sense supports?

I could go on, but I'm starting to depress myself. The point is that until someone with some heavy duty letters next to their name working for a credible institution takes a close and careful look through the volumes of research that already exist and does a serious cost-benefit analysis to bringing some health and sanity back into our lives, little is likely to change. The solution to supporting our nation's working moms and dads will take the combined efforts of government and employers. But we must first make the argument in dollars, not just common sense, to move their hearts and minds.

No comments: