Job quality matters: How our future economic competitiveness hinges on the quality of parents’ jobs

Being the parent of young children in the United States today is no easy task. Many have to juggle multiple jobs with unpredictable hours—single-parent and two-income families alike—and whether wealthy or poor, the question of childcare is ever present. Only adding to this stress is the growing evidence of the importance of the years between conception and kindergarten for a child’s development. No wonder parents, and particularly mothers given their traditional role as the primary caregiver and increasingly as breadwinner, are so concerned about how to balance work and raise their young children.

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The findings of many new studies on the importance of children’s early years for future outcomes should give pause to parents and policymakers. As this paper documents, the research shows that children’s kindergarten skill levels are correlated with their subsequent success (or failure) in the job market as adults, even accounting for the quality and quantity of elementary, secondary, and post- secondary schooling.1 An even more worrisome finding is that experiencing stress during childhood or adolescence (such as experiencing a parent working a low- quality job—or worse—losing a job) can negatively affect mental and physical health, and educational attainment and have lasting effects into adulthood.2

No wonder harried working mothers and fathers, up and down the income ladder, report conflicts between their job and meeting their children’s needs. Our work- place policies largely fail to help the majority of working parents—a substantial majority of whom lack the income to compensate for the lack of family-friendly workplace policies in our nation. In 2013, only 61 percent of private-sector workers had employer-provided paid sick days and only 12 percent had access to employer-provided paid family leave.1 Access to workplace flexibility policies is also extremely limited: in 2011, only half of workers had access to flexible hours policies and about one quarter of workers had access to flexible location policies.4

Low-income workers have even more limited access to policies to help them address conflicts between earning a living and caring for the next generation. Too many families rely on a fragile patchwork of familial and non-relative care to try to balance the demands of work and home.5  In a 2000 study of low-income working parents, the majority of parents reported that they did not expect to be able adjust their work schedules or create arrangements to better balance work and family, other than through finding another job.6

 In short, the structures of our workplaces today do not at all match the needs of working parents or their children. This crisis in the home is not just a private problem—it is one of national importance. In not meeting the needs of today’s children, we risk a lower-productivity future, which will have serious implications for our nation’s economic growth.

Economists have long argued that human capital, that is, the level of skills, education, and talents of the potential workforce, is one of the most important factors in deter- mining economic growth.7  Human capital has long been the engine powering our nation’s global competitiveness. Yet, growing evidence suggests that the United States is falling behind other countries in terms of skill acquisition. New data from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development found that across 34 developed countries, U.S. teenagers rank 17th in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math.8

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In the national debate over how to improve skills of the U.S. workforce, economists and policymakers are looking to early childhood and finding compelling evidence that the early years matter far more than we previously understood. Economists traditionally measure human capital in terms of educational attainment or levels of training, but this may overstate the importance of post-secondary education.9  This is not to say that later investments are not important, but that recent research in economics points to the conclusion that, in order to improve our nation’s economic growth and competitiveness, policymakers must also focus on early childhood.10

 Early childhood is so important because this is when we acquire what economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman terms “non-cognitive” skills, also known as “soft skills,” which are both important on their own as well as provide the foundation for later skill acquisition.11 Non-cognitive skills are skills that are not specifically intellectual or analytical in nature, such as a child’s perseverance or ability  to get along with others. By and large, these soft skills are learned from primary caregivers very early in life—be they mom and dad, grandparents, childcare professionals, some combination of these role models, or sadly sometimes hardly anyone at all. This is why it is so important for our society and our policymakers tounderstand the largely under-explored issue of children’s widely differing early childhood experiences due to changes in inequality and the kinds of jobs in which their parents are engaged.

Two interrelated trends define the economic experience of families over the past 50 years. First, families have altered the way they work and care for children. Most children no longer have a full-time, stay-at-home parent, which means that where and how children spend their days are markedly different compared to a generation or two ago.12  The typical American middle-income family put in an average of 11 more hours a week at work in 2007, just before the start of the Great Recession, than it did in 1979 and, in 2010, fewer than one third of children lived in a family with a full-time stay-at-home parent.13 Abundant economics research has explored the effects of greater maternal employment and the quality of childcare on children’s outcomes, but we know much less about how the quality—and flexibility—of parents’ jobs interacts with these processes. What we do know from the research points to the conclusion that parental job quality, including the ability to have some control over when work happens, is a very important issue.

Second, the United States has seen a sustained rise in economic inequality, widening the gap between low-and high-incomes to unprecedented levels.14 As has been well documented, inequality in the United States has taken the form of the top pulling apart from the rest of the income distribution, with little income gains for the bottom 90 percent of families.15  This means that while some children have access to immense resources, others lack access to the resources they need to be fully productive members of our society and economy. Just as importantly, high inequality is associated with greater divergence in access to high-quality jobs— those that pay good wages, offer stable and predictable schedules, and provide benefits that allow workers to address conflicts between work and family.16 This means that low-income children are experiencing the double-whammy of less income just as their parents cope with less control over their time to provide care.

This report examines what is known about the importance of early childhood for the development of human capital, then turns to what we know about the effects of family income, employment patterns, and job quality on children’s development. We find that job quality, especially control over schedules and access to benefits that allow workers to address conflict between work and family, is an under-examined issue in the economics literature. However the research that does exist shows that this is an important issue to include in our policy agenda to improve children’s outcomes.

Briefly, here is what we discovered:


  • The time parents spend with their child affects the child’s cognitive and non-cognitive development, with strong effects during a child’s earliest years.



  • Mothers’ movement into the workplace and the rise in income inequality means there is a growing divergence across families in terms of resources that parents can devote to their children.



  • Money matters. Parents’, and particularly single mothers’, access to well-paying work has real impacts on child outcomes through a variety of mechanisms. Perhaps most significantly, access to quality childcare is highly dependent on income.



  • The level of stress among parents due to juggling work and family responsibilities has a direct effect their child’s development.



  • Most working parents have limited or no access to work-family policies such as workplace flexibility, paid leave, and paid sick days and those who do are more likely to be from higher income families. These policies help parents address conflicts between work and home, with real implications for parenting and children’s outcomes.


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All of these factors have a direct impact not only on the future human capital available in our country, but also, by extension, the productivity of our economy in the decades ahead.A key conclusion of this paper is that we need to better understand the links between developing our children’s human capital and the quality of their parents’ jobs, including wages, the ability to have some control or flexibility on hours or scheduling, and the stress that they experience and bring home from work. One thing is very clear: our future economic competitiveness depends on getting this right.


1      Almond, Douglas, and Janet Currie. Human Capital Devel- opment Before Age Five. NBER Working Paper. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2010. http://

2      National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain. Working Paper. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child, June 2009; Strazdins, Lyndall, Megan Shipley, Mark Clements, Léan V. Obrien, and Dorothy H. Broom. “Job Quality and Inequality: Parents’ Jobs and Children’s Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties.” Social Science & Medicine 70, no. 12 (2010): 2052–60. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.02.041; Kalil, Ariel,and Ziol-Guest, Kathleen M. “Single Mothers’ Employment Dynamics and Adolescent Well-Being.” Child Development 76, no. 1 (2005): 196–211.

3      U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Table 32. Leave Benefits: Access, Private Industry Workers, National Compensation Survey, March 2013.” U.S. Department of Labor, 2013. private/table21a.pdf.

4      Glynn, Sarah Jane. Working Parents’ Lack of Access to Paid Leave and Workplace Flexibility. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, November 2012. http://cdn. GlynnWorkingParents-1.pdf.

5      Williams, Joan C., and Heather Boushey. The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict: The Poor, the Privileged, and the Miss- ing Middle. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress and the Center for WorkLife Law, University of California, Hastings College of the Law, 2010.

6      Dodson, Lisa, Tiffany Manuel, and Ellen Bravo. Keeping Jobs and Raising Families in Low-Income America: It Just Doesn’t Work. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, 2002.

7      DeLong, J. Bradford, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence Katz. “Sustaining U.S. Economic Growth.” In Agenda for the Nation, edited by Henry J. Aaron, James M. Lindsay, and Pietro S. Nivola. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2003; Mankiw, N. Gregory, David Romer, and David N. Weil. “A Contribution to the Empirics of Economic Growth.”The Quarterly Journal of Economics 107, no. 2 (1992): 407–37; Barro, Robert, and Jong-Wha Lee. “Educational Attainment in the World, 1950-2010.” Vox, 2010.

8      Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can Do: Student Performance in Mathematics, Reading and Science (Volume I). Revised edition. OECD Publishing, 2014. volume-i.htm.

9      Heckman, James J., and Lakshmi K. Raut. Intergenerational Long Term Effects of Preschool – Structural Estimates from a Discrete Dynamic Programming Model. NBER Working Paper. National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2013.

10   On the importance of later interventions, see, for example: Heller, Sara, Harold A. Pollack, Roseanna Ander, and Jens Ludwig. Preventing Youth Violence and Dropout: A Randomized Field Experiment. Working Paper. National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2013.

11   Heckman, James J. Schools, Skills, and Synapses. Working Paper. National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2008.

12   Boushey, Heather. “The New Breadwinners.” In The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, edited by Heather Boushey and Ann O’Leary. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2009.

13   Mishel, Lawrence, Josh Bivens, Elise Gould, and Heidi Shierholz. “Table 2.18 – Annual Hours Worked by Married Men and Women Age 25-54 with Children, by Income Group, Select Years, 1979-2010.” In The State of Working America, 12th ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012; Glynn, Sarah Jane. The New Breadwinners: 2010 Update. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2012.

14   Piketty, Thomas, and Emmanuel Saez. “Income Inequality in the United States, 1913–1998.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 118, no. 1 (February 2003): 1–39.

15   See: Saez, Emmanuel. Striking It Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Updated with 2012 Preliminary Estimates). Berkeley, CA: University of California – Berkeley, September 2013. http://elsa.berkeley. edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2012.pdf; Mishel, Lawrence, Josh Bivens, Elise Gould, and Heidi Shierholz. “Figure 4H – Cumulative Change in Real Annual Wages, by Wage Group, 1979-2010.” In State of Working Amer- ica, 12th Edition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. swa-wages-figure-4h-change-real-annual-wages/.

16  Schmitt, John, and Janelle Jones. Bad Jobs on the Rise. Washington, DC: Center for Economic and Policy Research, September 2012.; Schmitt, John, and Janelle Jones. Making Jobs Good. Washington, DC: Center for Economic and Policy Research, April2013.; Williams, Joan C., and Heather Boushey. The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict: The Poor, the Privileged, and the Missing Middle.