Economic policies more promising to reduce work-family inequality than family interventions

by Chris Garrington

New research from the Equal Lives project suggests initiatives to support disadvantaged families should focus on supporting job success rather than on marriage guidance.  

Government programmes which have targeted individual families to support relationship stability may have missed the mark, the study suggests. It looks at the lives of more than 5000 people in the United States between the ages of 22 and 44 and reveals that family lives and job success are closely interlinked.

The researchers, Anette Fasang from Humboldt University in Berlin and Silke Aisenbrey from Yeshiva University in New York, used data from the US National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to examine participants’ work and family histories from 1979 to 2008.

They compiled detailed monthly diaries and took an intersectional perspective to assess overlapping categories of gender and race by comparing the experiences of black women, white women, black men and black women over time. These diaries detailed whether the participants were in a relationship, whether they had children and whether they were in a low or high-status occupation or not working.

The study found that for black women stable relationships did not support job success, while the opposite was true for black men.

Layers of inequality

White men had the best chances of combining successful careers and family life: they had the best jobs and that supported their ability to maintain stable relationships. The impact of their work on their family life, for example through parental leave, was negligible.

Black men, conversely, tended to be in low-status work: a staggering 62 per cent of this group were in precarious unstable, low-status careers, and tended to lack stable partnerships. A large proportion were either childless or had fathered children but did not live with their mothers.

Those black men who achieved higher-status jobs were also more likely to have stable partnerships – though only 13 per cent were in this group – and even those in lower-status stable jobs found it easier to maintain relationships.

But a comparison of the experiences of black and white women revealed a different picture. Stable, high-status employment was extremely uncommon among black women, and those who achieved it tended to be single. 

Among white women, 38 per cent were in high-status employment – and while those in lower-status work found their relationships competed with their working lives, this pattern reversed if they moved up the career ladder and could afford to outsource family care.

For black women, job success and family life tend to exclude one another: the most successful black women in the cohort had never experienced long-term partnerships.

The study says marriage counselling cannot address these inequalities because it is unlikely to reach those in the most vulnerable positions: disadvantaged single mothers and childless men in precarious employment, who never enter marriage.


As economic disadvantage is at the root of relationship instability the best interventions are economic ones which can enable those from poorer backgrounds to work towards more stable and rewarding jobs, the study says. 

Education and employment can support the reduction of race and gender gaps in work and family life: a good job is a gateway to satisfaction both at work and at home, as it tends to lead to later parenthood within a stable partnership. So early interventions to support the education of disadvantaged groups are the best way forward. 

When it comes to interventions in families, sex education and access to contraception are likely to be more effective than marriage counselling. Policies such as paid parental leave and basic welfare support can make stable family life with children a possibility for those who might otherwise be excluded from it. 

Uncovering social stratification: Intersectional inequalities in work and family life courses by gender and race is research published in Social Forces marriageby Anette Fasang of Humboldt University, Berlin and Silke Aisenbrey of Yeshiva University, New York.