Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Family time: Myths and Realities

According to critics of American capitalism the modern family is spending more and more time working and less and less time with one another. Yes, they argue, capitalism is destroying the family. Odd, actually since the old Left critique was that the family was evil and was created by capitalism. Never mind the inconsistency for now. But what about the current crop of myths spread by the Left. (Who are, as far as I can tell, as deluded as the Right.)

A group of sociologist, normally a dangerous configuration, recently did a study on how men and women today spend their time compared to the 1960s. The University of Maryland researchers were shocked to find that the typical parent today spends much more time with their children.

The New York Times reports: “At first, the authors say, “it seems reasonable to expect that parental investment in child-rearing would have declined” since 1965, when 60 percent of all children lived in families with a breadwinner father and a stay-at-home mother. Only about 30 percent of children now live in such families. With more mothers in paid jobs, many policy makers have assumed that parents must have less time to interact with their children.”

“But, the researchers say, the conventional wisdom is not borne out by the data they collected from families asked to account for their time. The researchers found, to their surprise, that married and single parents spent more time teaching, playing with and caring for their children than parents did 40 years ago.”

In 1965 the average woman spent 10 hours per week on “child care” while the average man spent 3 hours or 13 hours in total. By 2000 the average woman spent 13 hours per week and the average man spent 7 hours or a total of 20 hours per week. Kids today spend more than twice as much time in the care of their fathers than they did during the 1960s.

That is a rather large increase in time spent with children. And the typical family in 1965 had more children than today meaning not just more time spent on childcare but much more time spent per child.

A new trend? Apparently not. A study by Sandra Hofferth and John Sandberg, University of Michigan, says this has been going on for some time. “A study using U.S. data from the 1920s to the 1980s reports that parental time caring for children rose rather than declined over the period, in spite of increased maternal employment. Another study using recent data shows an increase in the time employed mothers spent in child care as a primary activity between 1965 and 1985 (compared with a decrease for non employed mothers).”

The time spent on housework has declined. No surprise there. Labour saving devices now mean less time doing the mundane things. Today you throw laundry into a washer and press a couple of buttons. In the 1960s washers that had to be monitored constantly with clothes being pushed through wringers by hand were not uncommon. A load of laundry could take an hour or more and not minutes. Hofferth and Sandberg noted: “The time women spend in household work has declined significantly over the past several decades.”

In some ways you would think housework ought to have increased since the average home is much larger than it was during the Rob and Laura Petrie days of the 1960s. National Public Radio reported: “The average American house size has more than doubled since the 1950s; it now stands at 2,349 square feet. Whether it's a McMansion in a wealthy neighborhood, or a bigger, cheaper house in the exurbs, the move toward ever large homes has been accelerating for years.”

Of course there are doom sayers about the increasing size of the family. John Stilgoe teaches landscape history (I am not making that up) at Harvard University. He sees the bigger houses as representing “the atomizing of the American family. Each person not only has his or her own bathroom. Some of these houses are literally designed with three playrooms for two children. This way, the family members rarely have to interact. And the notion of compromises is simply out one of the very many windows these houses sport.”

Stilgoe may wish to rain on everyone’s parade but as the old proverb goes: “He full of it.” As we have already seen the amount of time parents spend with children has dramatically increased and been increasing for sometime. I’m not sure how pertinent landscape history is to these trends but the professor obviously has not read the literature regarding actual trends.

There are other shifts as well. While the total amount of housework has declined men are doing a larger share of it. The amount of time they spend on housework, between 1965 and 2000, increased by six hours per week but the amount of time women spent decreased by 13 hours per week.

Women in 1965 spent 50 hours per week on child care, housework and employment. By 2000 they spent 55 hours per week. And men in 1965 spent 49 hours per week on the same things and now spend 54 hours. So where are they spending more time?

A good deal of the increase can be found in the time each spend with their children. Three of the five extra hours per week women spend in all three activities is in childcare. And the rest is in paid employment. In fact paid employment time has almost tripled for women going from 8 hours per week to 23 hours per week. Most of these extra hours for paid work was found because of less housework. Housework time declined by 13 hours per week while paid employment increased by 15 hours per week.

Men are spending 5 hours more per week in total on all three activities. What shifted for them? They are now spending 4 hours per week more with their kids and they are spending 6 hours a week more with housework and 5 hours less per work on paid employment.

It may be that both the feminist Left and “pro-family” Right are getting what they want. Parents are spending more time with their kids which the so-called pro-family movement should appreciate -- though I doubt they will. And the work load between men and women is more evenly distributed than it was 35 years ago. As it now stands women spend only 1 hour per week more on these three activities than do men. Men spend 10 hours a week more time engaged in housework and childcare and women spend 10 hours less per week on these two --- though they actually spend more time with their children today they are spending much less time on housework. In 1965 for ever 1 hour of paid employment for women the men worked 5.25 hours. By 2000 for ever 1 hour of female paid employment men had 1.6 hours.

So not only is the total work load between men and women almost identical but the distributions between the three main categories is more evenly spread today than in the past. For instance in childcare, in 1965 women spent 3.3 hours with the children for every hour that men spent. In 2000 women spent 1.85 hours in childcare for every hour that men spend. In 1965 women spent 8 hours in house work for every one hour that men spent. By 2000 they were spending 1.9 hours for each hour the men contributed.

So parents spend more time with their children and much less time on housework. But they are also spending more time in paid employment in total with all the extra time coming from paid work for women. Is this good or bad? Considering that even women are spending more time with the kids the paid employment did not come out of child care time. Most of it came through reduced levels of house work. But the total time did go up.

But if the size of the average home has almost tripled then one would expect that more paid employment would be required even with rising standards of living. And the number of cars owned per family have increased dramatically as well. A greater percentage of children attend university now as well. Living standards have jumped dramatically and while much of this has come from increased productivity some of it comes from a total increase in hours worked. Families could easily rectify this if they wished to do so. Instead of buying homes almost three times the size of those they lived in as children they might cut back to only twice as big.

The major culprit in the increased work load has come from government. Americans spend more and more time feeding fat bureaucrats in Washington. In 1990 the per capita tax burden was $5,523 by 2000 it was $7,718. And “A generation ago it stood at $4,832. So the per capita tax burden rose by $1,933, or almost 40 percent in a generation, and this is after adjusting for inflation.”

This would seem to imply that had government been less greedy that living standards could have increased as we’ve seen without the accompanying increase in total work hours per family. Total works hours per couple increased by 20 percent while the US government admits that taxes, adjusted for inflation, rose twice as much. Had government restrained itself, highly unlikely of course, people could still have bigger homes, more cars, more education and the rest of the good things they now enjoy without having to work more.

The Left wishes to place the blame on capitalism. But the blame lies squarely within the camp of statism. All the extra hours of work put in per family are the result of the greater levels of taxation.