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Will spending more time or money lead to healthier kids? Here’s what researchers found

Researchers looked at government policies across 20 nations to learn what made health disparities disappear for children with working parents.

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Riki Sanford plays with her 7-month-old son Vince at home in Provo on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Riki Sanford had six weeks of paid maternity leave, then used other paid time off from her job when baby Vince was born 7 months ago. Her husband Blake went back to work sooner, but the Vineyard, Utah, couple know they’re fortunate to have paid vacation and sick days, because that gives them some flexibility.

Her voice lights up when she’s asked about Vince; she doesn’t have to think very hard about all the goodness she hopes life will bestow on him. “My biggest hope is that he lives a genuine, happy life and has really good relationships,” she said.

As he grows up, she wants him to “find his place,” whether something at which he excels or just something that he loves. And she wants him to be healthy.

A newly published study suggests Vince may have an advantage in terms of health and well-being over many children because his parents have some work flexibility. The study, published online by the journal Social Forces, says parents in countries with greater work flexibility policies — the category includes paid time off for parenting, illness and/or vacation and in some cases, moldable hours — can better attend to their children’s needs.

The researchers looked at self-reported health — mental and physical — as well as life satisfaction of children 11 to 15, then considered whether parents had access to job flexibility through public policy.

Policies that help resolve conflicts between family life and the need to make a living are called “work-family reconciliation” policies. The study suggests the benefits of such policies for children are often overlooked, but may be substantial — a way to close the gap in terms of children’s health disparities. If one’s goal is to close health gaps between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers, this research indicates work-family reconciliation works better than cash transfers like welfare payments or help with the cost of child care.

Such cash transfers were not associated with reducing health disparities between disadvantaged youths and others, based on the study of children in 20 industrialized countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. They didn’t look at individual families to see if they used family-friendly work policies, but measured based on policies available on a countrywide basis,

Family-friendly work policies did seem to close the gaps, showing that families don’t just need financial resources, they need time with each other, too.

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Blake and Riki Sanford sit with their 7-month-old son Vince at home in Provo on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Source of the help

America relies on employers to provide or not provide job-flexibility benefits like paid sick leave or vacation time. Sometimes, companies can’t afford to offer those benefits. Some of the industrialized countries in the study provide versions of the help as a matter of public policy, instead of counting on companies to do it.

Funding mechanisms and how programs work vary from place to place. The study looked at data from Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States.

Work-related benefits in the United States are typically market-driven and are often a tool for companies to compete in hiring. The jobs with strong benefits tend to go to skilled workers who already have advantages like solid education, specialized training and financial resources.

Lead author Matthew Andersson, an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor, notes that because the United States provides fewer guaranteed supports for working parents than other rich countries, lots of Americans find themselves in some cases choosing between taking time to handle a family illness or crisis and losing the job.

Researchers found an association between the health and well-being of young adolescents and work-family reconciliation policies in countries that provided them, often through the equivalent of a Social Security system. Family-friendly policies were linked to better health in adolescence. The fact that cash transfers weren’t associated with the size of health disparities suggests “the unique importance of work-family reconciliation policies,” the study said.

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Riki Sanford looks out the window with her 7-month-old son Vince at home in Provo on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Growing strong kids

There may be implications from guaranteed work-family reconciliation policies not only for how children’s health fares overall, but also for whether couples choose to have children, how many and how well their babies bond to parents, which can impact their development, Andersson and co-author Jennifer Glass of the University of Texas at Austin said.

Andersson sees government-provided work-family reconciliation benefits as a relatively small cost to society that provides long-term, substantial gains even decades down the road. “Health and equality research shows that everyone loses when we put disadvantaged families behind,” he said.

“Government mandates and funding would help ease the cost to employers, but employers could also benefit directly from happier and more productive workers,” added Michael A. Garcia, the third study author and a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin.

“We know from workplace studies that those with more flexible work arrangements are generally more productive, more engaged with their work and more satisfied with their job,” Garcia said. “Flexibility may also lower the risk of burnout, which can be costly to both the worker and their employer. Essentially, work flexibility can breed happy workers and when workers are happy, both their employers and family reap the benefits.”

Glass, who also directs the Council on Contemporary Families, said the authors looked at health disparities in adolescents because health differences start showing up at that age in ways that are invisible in early childhood. “We argue it’s an issue of parental time and care,” she said. “Money didn’t seem to have an impact on health — probably on other things, but not on health.”

The other thing to remember, she added, is that many of the policies won’t improve the health of children who have many advantages to the extent it does for children whose parents can’t afford time off work.

Glass also emphasized the costs associated with not addressing the challenges disadvantaged families face. A country that doesn’t produce a healthy, educated and entrepreneurial workforce for 20 years will see economic ruin, for instance. Assuring a society’s future health relies on ensuring children thrive, she said.

“The parental ecosystem requires more than money. It requires time,” said Glass. “It requires involvement in kids’ lives. And you can’t do that if you can’t ever eat together, sleep at the same time, meet friends’ parents, etc.” 

The correlation is “striking,” Andersson said, noting the researchers controlled for the overall affluence of the countries and their total fertility rates. 

Policymakers have tried and are considering different approaches to create better futures for disadvantaged or at-risk children. For instance, officials and experts debate cutting taxes to give families more money, Glass said. “Our argument was that money actually can’t solve everything. Money can’t provide children with parental time.” She said it doesn’t substitute for everything parents need to give kids good health in childhood, like safe neighborhoods or a healthy environment.

Balancing work and family doesn’t solve every family’s challenges, either. But “workers with ample paid time off for parenting, illness and/or vacation are better able to attend to their children’s needs,” the study said. “Workers who control their own schedules are better able to mesh their children’s school, sleep, and play time with their own work schedule, enabling closer supervision of children’s schoolwork, friends and leisure activities.”

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A saying on the wall of Blake and Riki Sanford’s home in Provo on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News