Dual-earner families and supportive states

A multinational study has just come out which evaluates the stress levels of dual earner families. The starting point for it is the worry that if multiple roles (e.g. carer and breadwinner) cause stress, perhaps states should not be trying to facilitate this. (In my experience, this is a relatively popular student criticism of feminist proposals.) The study shows, however, that the potential stress caused by multiple roles is mitigated by the support offered by supportive states (as in Scandinavia). I haven’t had time to read this in detail because I really should be writing lectures. (Thanks, K!)

Our evaluations do not lend evidence to hypotheses predicting
higher stress and role conflicts in countries where family policy design offers
extensive support to dual-earner families. Findings are more in line with
institutionalist ideas on work-family reconciliation, indicating that family policy institutions supportive of dual-earner families counterbalance stress emanating from multiple roles.

12 thoughts on “Dual-earner families and supportive states

  1. This is a good addition to the role strain/stress literature. It is not startling that stress should be mitigated by “supportive states” (per the article, generally those engaged in “extensive transfers [i.e. of wealth] and services”), as extensive transfers of wealth and services are the sort of thing naturally likely to decrease stress on the transferees. They also seem likely to increase stress (in one sense or another) on the transferors, though, so I wonder if the stress isn’t being mitigated so much as moved around.

  2. Nemo,

    I am most familiar with discussions of health inequalities (rather than stress in particular), but much of that literature suggests that decreasing inequality is generally good for the health outcomes not only of the poor, but also of the wealthy within that particular society. Health inequalities are not measures of stress per se, but stress is one feature that contributes to poor health outcomes. (For data, see the recent WHO reports on the social determinants of health).

  3. Bakka, when you refer to the effect on health outcomes of “decreasing inequality” above, are you referring to the effect on health outcomes of decreasing *health* inequality, or the effect on health outcomes of decreasing some other inequality (such as income inequality, for example)?

  4. Bakka: OK, I see. With respect to wealth inequality alone, I’m not sure the “extensive transfers and services” referred to in the linked article are the sort designed to reduce it. I gather that dual-earner support policies for purposes of the study are likely either universal or given on some basis other than wealth. Policies intended to address wealth disparity (such as targeted allowances given unemployed parents) would likely not, by their nature, be treated as dual-earner support policies for purposes of the study.

    At any rate, the “increased stress on the transferors” is in the first instance fiscal stress on the welfare state itself; it seems counterintuitive to think that that doesn’t ultimately lead to some negative outcomes of its own (which is why I thought the “stress”, broadly understood, might just be moved around).

    This study seems consistent with the idea that multiple roles may tend to generate role conflicts and stress, but if enough public resources are expended (i.e. “extensive transfers and services”) the resulting stress on the families concerned can be largely offset. That is good to know although not, as I mentioned earlier, particularly startling.

  5. Nemo,

    Speaking of fiscal stress, I think we should not stare myopically at the cost of such “extensive transfers and services” without considering the financial benefits.

    The real issue is how the fiscal stress created by “extensive transfers and services” compares to the fiscal stress of having a large proportion of the population outside of the paid workforce, and the fiscal stress a low birth-rate will create down the line when a shrinking population has to support an ever-increasing number of retirees. In the absence of such “extensive transfers and services”, birth rates in developed countries tend to plummet (think of Italy). The question, then, is, can the economy tolerate the *absence* of such transfers?

    That the math here clearly comes out in favor of extensive transfers and services is recognized by most welfare states:


  6. Karen: I agree that we should not stare myopically at costs without considering benefits (not to say that anyone is doing that, of course). The fertility-related issue you identify is an important one, though it’s only one facet of the whole – in order to be thorough one would have to compare accurately a very broad array of elements to determine net costs/benefits.

    True, it is pretty generally acknowledged that financial incentives can have a favorable impact on birthrates (and by “favorable”, I mean “upwards”, in poor old Europe’s case). However, it’s worth noting two things here.

    First, in order to have that impact, the financial incentives don’t necessarily need to be the kind referred to in the first study (i.e. ones that particularly relieve dual-earning stress). Second, we’re not faced with a simple choice between lower birthrates and extensive welfare-state transfers and services (that’s the “can we afford NOT to have them” argument); there are a multitude of other factors exerting upward and downward influences on fertility which are potentially addressable at some cost, and where we might (I have no idea) get more bang, no pun intended, for our buck.

  7. Nemo,

    Your criticism here depends on the specifics of the alternatives you allude to, but don’t spell out. If “extensive transfers and services” •do• work (as you appear to concede), then I’d be very interested to learn what other proposals you have in mind that would work as well or better.

    You don’t give any indication what they are, so it’s hard to identify an argument in your reply.

  8. Karen: I wasn’t advancing a specific policy argument; I was inviting attention to an apparent faulty dilemma in yours (either we commit to extensive transfers and services – for brevity, “ETS” – of the kind described in the first study, or suffer the consequences of disastrously low birthrates).

    Almost any change which lowers the perceived costs and raises the perceived benefits of having children, or which raises the perceived costs and lowers the perceived benefits of *not* having children, will tend to push birthrates upward. This is the case with ETS – but whether ETS do so cost-effectively, much less the *most* (or even uniquely) cost-effectively, is not evident from the linked studies. I think one would reasonably want to see some evidence for that before concurring in your conclusion.

  9. I do remember Dan Gilbert, prominent happiness studies psychologist, saying that the statistics show people in more equal situations are happier, less stessed. Income inequality is a huge stressor for everyone.

    Loss of income also does not automatically mean very long term stress. Some people choose it for very good reasons.

  10. Nemo,

    Apologies for this belated response. From a policy perspective, the fact that we know that ETS works while we don’t know of any alternatives that work any better is surely a presumption in favor of ETS. The possible existence of a superior policy isn’t a reason to forego ETS as long as we don’t know what these better policies are. It therefore really isn’t very interesting to say that the dilemma between ETS and low birthrates is false since there could be better alternatives. Maybe it’s a reason to continue research, since states that do engage in ETS would surely love to save money, but while we wait for better policy proposals that have all the advantages of ETS at a lower cost – without running afoul of our right to choose to procreate or not – I would suggest that the case for ETS is pretty strong.

    And that’s not even counting in the positive effects of ETS on areas other than birth-rate, such as women’s employment rate, taxes paid to the state, new jobs created in the ETS-based service sector, women’s financial independence and the autonomy it affords in a relationship, benefits from maintenance of skills acquired in state-subsidized higher-education (yes, even in the US), women’s self esteem, and the positive ripple effects of low stress on everything from health, to child-rearing, to sex (apparently, couples who share domestic responsibilities equally report more satisfying sex-lives).

  11. Karen: you say “From a policy perspective, the fact that we know that ETS works while we don’t know of any alternatives that work any better is surely a presumption in favor of ETS.” I think this is problematic (at least potentially) for a number of reasons.

    First of all, the statement “we don’t know of any alternatives that work any better”, in order to be meaningful, assumes that we know how well ETS themselves work (which in turn requires us to know with a fair degree of reliability how a particular kind of ETS will impact birthrates at a certain cost level, how to quantify other countervailing social costs resulting from the allocation of resources in this way, etc.). Do we? This is not clear to me from the literature. In fact, what I know of others’ study of birthrate determinants suggests to me that it is extremely difficult to discern the relative impact of determinants, and moreover that the determinants don’t seem to work the same way across all countries at all times.

    Second, when it comes to socioeconomic policy, I’m not sure that it is a good idea to accord the kind of presumption you suggest solely on the basis of empirical unfamiliarity with other alternatives (assuming for the moment that this is actually the case). I think such a presumption would have an undue inertial effect in favor of the status quo and against a change in the way resources are allocated.

    Even if we don’t know how *well* ETS work on birthrates, we do have a general understanding of the mechanism by which most of them presumably work: lowering the cost of having and rearing children. But there seem to be so many conceivable ways to do this. A country that cut back on its universal ETS could have corresponding tax relief in a way designed to make it easier to raise children, for example. And of course lowering cost is not the only way to influence child-bearing behavior.

    I think H.L. Mencken once proposed some kind of bachelor/spinster tax – probably tongue in cheek, considering the source.

    (Anyway, just to relate this all back to the study in the original post, it’s worth mentioning again that not all pro-birthrate ETS policies are pro-dual-earner policies, so the effect of ETS on birthrates wouldn’t necessarily militate in favor of the particular kind of ETS that the authors were talking about.)

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