The European Model
What we can learn from how other
nations support families that work
by Marcia K Meyers and Janet C.
The American Prospect magazine,
To judge from public debates on everything
from marriage promotion to educational standards, the United States
is exceptionally concerned with the well-being of children. But
as American families struggle to balance work and family demands,
our government is doing little to help. Parents in countries such
as Sweden and France also balance work and family responsibilities.
In fact, rates of maternal employment are as high or higher in
these countries than in the United States. But parents in these
countries are managing competing demands with significantly more
help from government.
Three areas of work-family reconciliation
policies are particularly important: paid parenting leaves that
allow mothers and fathers to care for infants without forfeiting
their jobs or income; working time policies that increase options
for high-quality, reduced-hour, and part-time employment; and
publicly subsidized or provided early-childhood care and education
All of the western European countries
(and even nearby Canada) provide maternity, paternity, and/or
parental leave during the first year or more after the birth or
adoption of a child, typically funded through some combination
of national sickness, maternity, and other social-insurance funds.
Throughout much of Europe, normal workweeks have been shortened
to 35 to 39 hours, and legislation and/or collective-bargaining
agreements prohibit employers from treating part-time workers
less favorably than "comparable full-time workers."
In western Europe, policies that protect parental time are coupled
with high-quality, public early-childhood education and care.
Together, these policies support the provision of safe, developmentally
nurturing care for children from birth until the start of primary
In Sweden, parents have a right to 15
months of paid parental leave that can be shared between mothers
and fathers; parents also have a statutory right to work six hours
per day (at prorated pay) until their children turn 8. Leave benefits
are coupled with an entitlement to public child care for all children
from the end of their parents' leave periods, providing affordable
alternatives to full-time parental care. Nearly half of children
between the ages of 1 and 2 are in public care, as are 82 percent
of those between the ages of 3 and 5, and virtually all 6-year-olds.
Quality standards, set nationally by the Ministry of Education
and Science and adapted to local communities by municipalities,
ensure high-quality care, which is provided by well-trained workers
who earn wages at about the national average for all women workers.
France and several other continental European
countries combine somewhat shorter periods of paid leave with
dual systems of public child care (for the under-3s) and preschool
(from 3 until school age). In the French policy package, mothers
are entitled to 16 weeks of paid leave at the birth of first and
second children (26 weeks at the birth of subsequent children),
with 100-percent wage replacement; fathers have a right to ii
days of paid paternity leave. French parents are also entitled
to share three years of job-protected parental leave with low
flat-rate benefits. Leave benefits are coupled with a dual system
of early child care and later public preschool. About 20 percent
of children aged 1 and 2 attend public crèche or other
subsidized care; from the ages of 2 1/2 to 3, children are entitled
to a place in free public preschools (écoles maternelles),
and nearly all children attend. Quality standards are set by national
policy and curricula, and teachers in French écoles have
the equivalent of graduate training in early education and earn
wages that are above the average for all employed women.
Work-family reconciliation polices vary
across the European countries, reflecting both political priorities
and cultural norms about families and children. Countries such
as France, Belgium, and Italy emphasize school readiness in the
years before primary school, while the Nordic countries integrate
care and education throughout childhood. Even the educationally
oriented models of continental Europe vary in pedagogical approach
between the highly structured écoles maternelles of France
and the child-directed Reggio Emilia approach in Italy.
What is common is the concern with the
quality and the developmental focus of early care and education.
Governments play an active role in ensuring quality through program
standards, curricular design, quality assessments, and staffing
standards. Staff are generally highly trained and, particularly
for those working with 3- and 4-year-old children, meet educational
standards that are comparable to those of public school teachers.
Staff compensation is correspondingly high, particularly for professionals
working with children over 3-and, in the Nordic countries, for
those working with all children under school age.
What does it cost France and Sweden to
provide this level of care for children? And could we afford it
here in the United States? We estimate that if the United States
were to offer an extremely generous package of paid family leave
and child care-combining, say, Swedish family-leave policies with
French childcare provisions-the United States would need to spend
between 1 percent and 1.5 percent of the gross domestic product,
or about $115 billion to $175 billion per year, depending on parents'
level of use. This level of spending would be comparable to what
Sweden and France now invest.
Whether these costs are a lot or a little
to spend on the well-being of children depends on what we expect
to gain from the investment. The European experience, as well
as extensive empirical research conducted largely in the United
States, suggests that the benefits could be great. There is now
substantial evidence that high-quality early-childhood education
has benefits for children's school readiness. There is also worrisome
evidence that extensive time in poor-quality care may be harmful
for very young children. These benefits and risks are particularly
great for low-income children-the very children who are also those
most likely to miss out, in the U.S. system, on high quality,
educationally oriented programs in the years before the start
of school. Given the relatively poor academic performance of America's
children, in cross-national perspective, the educational advantages
provided by the European systems cannot be overlooked.
The European experience suggests that
these work-family reconciliation policies have other social benefits
as well. The United States has experimented with mostly private
solutions for work-family reconciliation, and the results are
not good. In comparison with our counterparts in a number of European
countries, we have high levels of gender inequalities in paid
and unpaid work, very low-quality child care, exceptionally poorly
paid childcare workers, and high child-care bills for families.
The distribution of these outcomes is also highly regressive.
In the United States, families and workers with the fewest resources
have access to the most limited employment-based family-leave
provisions. The poorest families spend the largest share of their
disposable income on substitute child care. And children in the
poorest families are the least likely to be in formal care settings
(as opposed to family care), and, if they are, in settings of
In the most well-developed European systems,
work-family reconciliation policies are universal, inclusive,
and progressive in their distribution of costs. Use of parental
leave is nearly universal among women and gaining acceptance among
men; nearly all children are enrolled in public child care that
is seen to promote both early learning and social integration
across economic and other divides. The universality of these programs
and their obvious benefits for children help explain high and
continuing political support, even in times of economic strain.
Between 1980 and the mid-1990s, per-child spending on family policy
in the western European countries increased by 52 percent. Expansion
of work-family reconciliation policies continues to be encouraged,
and in some cases required, by the European Union. Robust political
support for these programs suggests that our counterparts in much
of Europe recognize that spending for early-childhood programs
is an investment that pays dividends for children, their parents,
and society as a whole..
MARCIA K. MEYERS is an associate professor
of social work and public affairs at the University of Washington.
JANET C. GORNICK is an associate professor of political science
at the City University of New York's Graduate Center and Baruch
College. Their book, Families That Work: Policies for Reconciling
Parenthood and Employment, was published by the Russell Sage Foundation