4 Reasons American Parents Are Less Happy Than Their European Counterparts

Small daughters on swings with young parents. Focus on woman

Studies on happiness and parenthood abound. One study finds that parenthood, on average, is more happiness-stealing than the death of a loved one. Another finds that parenthood gives life more meaning, and that meaning leads to long-term happiness. In short, it’s complicated. Relative happiness between parents and non-parents in different countries, however, presents fewer complications.

According to a new study from Baylor University, the happiness gap between U.S. parents and non-parents is larger than that of their European counterparts. A study of 22 countries revealed a 12 percent gap in the happiness levels of U.S. parents and non-parents, with parents being less happy. Ireland has the next largest gap at 9.5 percent.

The study also found that relative unhappiness doesn’t need to be the outcome of parenthood. In several countries, parents reported being happier than non-parents. The main reason for these discrepancies? The affordability of child rearing and policies that help parents balance work and family life. Note that handing people money doesn’t seem to have a huge impact on happiness, but giving people tools to help them work out their own lives and jobs does. Here are four areas where the U.S. could use some reform to help fledgling families thrive.

  1.  Housing prices

The cost of raising a child in the U.S. rose to $245,000 in 2013. Add college to the bill and you can expect that number to rise significantly. The three main culprits of sky-high child rearing costs are housing, childcare and education. Housing costs balloon for parents, with children needing separate rooms in the household.

In the U.S., public housing is reserved for the needy. In Europe, social housing also benefits the middle-class. This has led some scholars to argue that the government should play a greater role in ensuring that affordable housing is available for all Americans. Government policies in the housing market, however, have not always been successful. Rent control was meant to keep housing prices at reasonable rates in some cities. Instead, it has often created housing shortages and absurd rents in those apartments not impacted by government policies.

Other scholars have suggested other options. Researchers at McKinsey and Company have identified four practices in the housing industry that, if managed differently, could make homes more affordable: lowering the cost of land, construction, operations and maintenance, and financing. There are also a number of city ordinances and legislation that makes housing more expensive. Changing zoning laws and allowing granny-flats and the tiny housing movement into our cities could help.

  1. A Failing educational system

Let’s face it: the U.S. educational system lets most Americans down. Our method of financing schools leaves parents scrambling to live in neighborhoods they really can’t afford or looking into private educational options. Charter schools have helped to some extent, but there are woefully few of them. Too many kids don’t win the charter school lottery.

At the same time the cost of private school is simply too high for the average family, much less a family with more than one child. Given the importance of education, it is no wonder American parents are stressed out.

  1.  Childcare expenses

Unlike education expenses, which can be alleviated by moving into a neighborhood with good public schools, there is little reprieve from childcare costs. The average cost of daycare at a center is more than $11,000 a year. For many families, that is too high. According to an OECD report, childcare costs in the U.S. are second only to Switzerland, where a two-income family can expect to spend over 50 percent of their joint earnings on childcare. In comparison, a U.S. family can expect to pay 30 percent. The OECD average is only 12 percent.

Unaffordable daycare centers leave families with few options. In the best case scenario, one parent can work days while the other works nights. This hardly makes for a pleasant work-life balance. In situations without two parents, options are even more limited.

There are a wide range of potential solutions to this problem. Denmark and France consider daycare a public good, to some extent. In Denmark, parents never pay more than 30 percent of daycare costs. France provides free pre-primary school for children ages 3 to 5 and subsidizes daycare for children under age 3. The systems aren’t without their problems. In France, for example, there are not enough slots for the under 3 crowd. Still, their problems are a far cry from what most U.S. parents contend with.

There is some assistance in America; around 1.41 million children received assistance in 2014. In contrast, 16 million children live in poverty.

  1. Flexibility in the workplace

The U.S. is far behind European nations when it comes to workplace flexibility. Most other industrialized nations mandate paid maternity leave, and some even sponsor policies for paternity leave. U.S. companies have also been comparatively slow to adopt flex hours and have always offered employees less vacation time than their European counterparts. This makes raising a family in the U.S. a more challenging proposal.

One method of solving this problem is to follow the European example of mandates and national policies. Another is for citizens to vote with their feet. The rise of the on-demand and freelance economy shows that many already are, and at least in one industry, the companies have heard. Tech companies have come out on the side of increased benefits and flexibility in a play to hire and retain workers.

Just as the question of whether children make their parents more or less happy is complicated, the question of how to improve the lot of U.S. parents is also complicated. One thing is for sure: many of our current policies aren’t working.
-Erin Wildermuth

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