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Perspective: Americans want more family time. Here’s what Congress can do about it

A reimagining of the workplace should include a 4-day work week, paid family leave and a workday that parallels school hours

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Gustav_Wentzel___Breakfast_II._The_Artist_s_Family___Google_Art_Project.jpg

Gustav Wentzel’s “Breakfast II. The Artist’s Family” was completed in 1885 and exhibited at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design.

Gustav Wentzel, Wikimedia Commons

As Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In America, even as the political divide seems to stretch from sea to shining sea, this quote holds true. Happy family life on both sides of the political aisle looks remarkably similar.

That’s one of the findings in the latest edition of the American Family Survey, a nationally representative poll conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

The survey of 3,000 U.S. adults, fielded Aug. 8-15 and released Tuesday, found that 76% of families eat dinner together weekly and 73% have weekly activities at home like watching TV or playing games.

Co-investigators Christopher F. Karpowitz and Jeremy C. Pope wrote, “We find large swaths of agreement in Americans’ assessments of the strength of their families and in the day-to-day activities in which families take part.” Family activities only differ sharply by political leaning when it comes to worshiping together.

Thirty percent of American families worship together each week, but that number is heavily weighted by conservative Republicans (44%) and moderate Democrats (39%). Just 15% of liberal Democrats say they worship weekly as a family, compared to 24% of moderate Republicans and 25% of independents.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic gave many people unprecedented time spent at home, nearly half of respondents said they would like more time with their family. While this was a new question in the American Family Survey, the results track with other polls. In a 2021 survey published by the Brookings Institution, 70% of mothers who were essential workers or working from home reported that they wanted more time to spend with their families.

“Most Americans would like to spend more time with their family and less time at work,” Karpowitz, Pope and Spencer Rudy of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy wrote in the report. “Few policies on offer in Congress directly address any of these concerns ... but the clear interest in additional options to have a more satisfying life is out there in the public.”

Having enough time for family life is an important determining factor for overall health of children. Spending quality time with children, even doing something as simple as eating dinner together, has substantial effects on behavior and outcomes for children.

Simply put, as Latter-day Saint apostle Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf has said, “In family relationships, love is really spelled t-i-m-e, time.”

As Karpowitz, Pope and Rudy noted, there are a handful of policies that could lead to an increase in family time for Americans. The most obvious would be a change in the standard five-day, 40-hour work week, which became law in 1940.

As Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow for the Brookings Institution, wrote in 2016, economists predicted that the more prosperous we became as a nation, the fewer hours we would choose to work. That hasn’t happened. Sawhill said, “A reduction in the standard work week would improve the quality of life, especially for those in hourly jobs who have benefitted hardly at all from economic growth in recent decades.”

That’s even more true today.

When the four-day work week was piloted in Iceland, productivity in the workplace was reported to either remain the same or improve. According to the BBC, “Workers reported feeling less stressed and at risk of burnout, and said their health and work-life balance had improved. They also reported having more time to spend with their families, do hobbies and complete household chores.”

Paid family leave is another policy option that would allow families to spend more time together. Angela Rachidi and Abby McCloskey, writing for the American Enterprise Institute, said that workplace flexibility, including paid leave, could be instrumental.

They said, “At the end of the day, paid parental leave offers more choices to parents who face difficulties balancing work with raising children.” Paid leave could provide flexibility to parents who deal with difficult family situations.

In a different report published by the American Enterprise Institute, Aparna Mathur and Abby McCloskey said, “There is evidence that paid leave makes it easier for women to work and have higher lifetime earnings.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities published a study that said, “The United States is the only member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that does not have a national paid family leave program, and one of two member countries lacking a national paid medical leave program.”

The study found that paid parental leave “contributes to the children’s healthy development, improves maternal health, supports fathers’ involvement in care and enhances families’ economic security.”

Pulcherie Bekono, Morgan Welch and Hannah Van Drie proposed an interesting solution while writing for the Brookings Institution: Change the parameters of the American work week. While children are typically in school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., the adult work week is often 9-5. The authors suggest matching the work week to school schedules, saying “This shift could keep working parents from having to reduce their hours or even having to stay home to care for school-aged children.”

There’s a substantial amount of evidence to support the idea that school should start later to improve children’s health. Changing the workday structure and school time could benefit both parents and children in a myriad of ways.

Some U.S. companies have already implemented policies like this. For example, Workiva offers 12 weeks of paid parental leave for both full-time and part-time employees after the birth or adoption of a child. According to Fortune, American Express also offers enviable benefits for workers: “A 2017 overhaul of parental benefits expanded leave to 20 weeks, increased coverage of surrogacy and adoption, and paid for nursing moms to ship breast milk home while traveling on AmEx business.” And a growing number of companies offer flexible schedules and even four-day work weeks.

While Congress could (and should) implement other solutions such as increasing the child tax credit and cutting children’s health care costs, which would potentially reduce financial stress on families, the private sector needs to step up to support families as well.

The federal government — which employs more workers than even Walmart — could begin by offering flexible schedules to workers. Such a move could be a high-profile start to reimagining the American workplace in a way that benefit all families, both Republican and Democrat.