Heartland Monitor Poll

Amid Stagnant Incomes, Work and Family Are Increasingly at Odds

In the current economy, Americans find they have to choose between succeeding at work or spending time with family.

Americans increasingly find they can provide for their families or spend time with them, but not both.
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Nov. 14, 2014, 1:54 a.m.

It’s a ques­tion that has fix­ated philo­soph­ers for gen­er­a­tions: What are the in­gredi­ents of a suc­cess­ful life?

It’s also a ques­tion that Patrice H. wrestles with in far grit­ti­er terms every day in the small Alabama town where she lives. Patrice, 42, works for an auto parts deal­er build­ing head­lamps, and her defin­i­tion of a qual­ity life is straight­for­ward but pro­found: “Work­ing a job where I wouldn’t have to live paycheck to paycheck and also have time to spend with my kids.”

Work­ing 12 hours a day, six days a week for $9 an hour, Patrice finds her­self weigh­ing the school func­tions and week­end af­ter­noons with her chil­dren that she misses against the grind­ing shifts she de­votes to build­ing them even a thin floor of eco­nom­ic se­cur­ity. “I have to see them less and work more in or­der for them to have a good life,” says Patrice, whose full name and spe­cif­ic loc­a­tion we have with­held to pre­serve her an­onym­ity. “And then on the week­ends, if I’m off, I’m tired from work­ing six or sev­en days of the week. It just makes it kind of dif­fi­cult. You can suc­ceed, but it’s go­ing to come with a price. You have to sac­ri­fice.”

Like Patrice, many of the Amer­ic­ans sur­veyed in the 21st All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll find it a daunt­ing chal­lenge to bal­ance work, fam­ily, and their de­sire to con­trib­ute to their com­munity.

In an era when the me­di­an in­come has re­mained stag­nant for an al­most un­pre­ced­en­ted 14 years, a power­ful com­mon theme in the sur­vey—and fol­low-up in­ter­views with re­spond­ents—was the sense that it is grow­ing harder to sup­port a fam­ily without work­ing so many hours that it dis­rupts fam­ily life. “You go from be­ing able to take care of your fam­ily on 40-50 hours a week to strug­gling on 40-50 hours a week,” says Dan Col­li­er, a Na­tion­al Guard con­tract­or from Lex­ing­ton, Ky., who re­spon­ded to the poll. Col­li­er, who re­cently took a second job to cov­er his bills, echoes Patrice when he says his greatest wish was to “be able to work a reas­on­able amount of hours while still provid­ing for all of your fam­ily’s needs, and some of the wants.”

This latest Heart­land Mon­it­or poll ex­plored what Amer­ic­ans be­lieve is ne­ces­sary to “make work work”: how well they be­lieve they are man­aging their ob­lig­a­tions at work, at home, and in their com­munity and what they think could help them do bet­ter. Na­tion­al Journ­al and The At­lantic will be re­leas­ing the poll’s res­ults over the next week.

On a vari­ety of ques­tions, the sur­vey sug­ges­ted, Amer­ic­ans place more weight on per­son­al con­nec­tions than fin­an­cial suc­cess when de­fin­ing a qual­ity life. But the poll also cap­tured wide­spread anxi­ety about wheth­er most people can achieve both in today’s eco­nomy.

Over­all, by 54 per­cent to 40 per­cent, a ma­jor­ity of those sur­veyed did agree that “most people can suc­ceed at work, make a good liv­ing, and con­trib­ute to their fam­ily and their com­munity, if they man­age their time well and set the right pri­or­it­ies.”

Sara Stees, from Abing­ton Md., is one who says she’s suc­cess­fully nav­ig­at­ing the tightrope. After stay­ing at home when her chil­dren were young­er, she re­cently reentered the work­force as a health coach for an in­sur­ance com­pany. And while she says not all par­ents can align their re­spons­ib­il­it­ies at home and work, her em­ploy­er has made it pos­sible for her. “I hap­pen to be with a com­pany that is very, very fo­cused on work-life bal­ance, so that makes it much easi­er,” she says.

Adults young­er than 30 and those in their 50s mostly agreed with Stees that work and life could be bal­anced with the right plan­ning. But among adults like Patrice in their prime work­ing years from 30 through 49, fully 45 per­cent be­lieve in­stead that “In today’s eco­nomy, it’s not pos­sible for most people to suc­ceed at work “… and have enough time to con­trib­ute to their fam­ily and their com­munity.” (Just a whis­per-thin ma­jor­ity of 51 per­cent took the more pos­it­ive view.) “You either give up time away from your fam­ily to be able to provide for your fam­ily, or you keep the time with your fam­ily and lower the qual­ity of life that you’re able to provide for them,” says Col­li­er, 44. “I used to be help­ful in cer­tain com­munity ser­vice things; I can’t do that any­more un­less I take that time away from my fam­ily. Con­versely, I can’t do those things with my fam­ily any­more, be­cause the time just isn’t there.”

A sub­stan­tial gender gap sep­ar­ated at­ti­tudes on this ques­tion, too. Three-fifths of men sur­veyed said that most people could suc­ceed at both work and home. But wo­men split al­most evenly: 48 per­cent said it was pos­sible and 46 per­cent said it was not. Among wo­men between ages 30 and 49, ex­actly half said it was not pos­sible to suc­ceed at both work and home. Joshlyn Lane, 40, a home health care pro­vider for a nurs­ing agency in Mil­wau­kee, Wis., who re­spon­ded to the poll, de­scribed the same ag­on­iz­ing choices as Patrice. A single moth­er with two sons, she works a sched­ule split in­to sep­ar­ate morn­ing and even­ing shifts four days a week; that routine, she says, has nev­er al­lowed her to at­tend one of her 17-year-old son’s foot­ball games. “In today’s so­ci­ety, I think it’s more stress­ful for wo­men be­cause there’s a lot more single par­ents out here. You have to work more hours and you have to sac­ri­fice spend­ing time with your chil­dren,” she says.

In these core work­ing years of 30-49, those without col­lege de­grees were more likely than those with de­grees to say suc­cess at both home and work was no longer pos­sible. Those, like Lane, who worked hours oth­er than the tra­di­tion­al 9 to 5 were sim­il­arly more likely than those who did to con­sider the bal­ance un­achiev­able. And those in this age group whose po­s­i­tion at work qual­i­fied them as staff are split about evenly on wheth­er the bal­ance is bey­ond reach—and con­sid­er­ably less op­tim­ist­ic than either man­agers or seni­or ex­ec­ut­ives. Par­ents in this age group were ac­tu­ally slightly less likely than the over­all pop­u­la­tion to con­sider the bal­ance un­at­tain­able (a dif­fer­ence with­in the poll’s mar­gin of er­ror). But that find­ing may say as much about gender dy­nam­ics as eco­nom­ic con­di­tions: While just one-third of fath­ers con­sidered a stable home/work bal­ance in­feas­ible, nearly half (48 per­cent) of moth­ers did so.

By far, the sur­vey found, the most com­mon obstacle that work­ers faced in bal­an­cing their ob­lig­a­tions was go­ing to work sick be­cause they felt they could not miss the time: al­most ex­actly half (49 per­cent) of cur­rent and former work­ers said they had done so. Just over one-fourth said they had missed “im­port­ant fam­ily ex­per­i­ences be­cause [they] were denied time off from work”; ex­actly one-fourth said they had fallen short at work be­cause they needed to care for a child, spouse, or par­ent. Fif­teen per­cent of those polled said they worked dif­fer­ent shifts than their spouse or part­ner be­cause they “could not provide day care for your chil­dren oth­er­wise”; and 14 per­cent said they had been pun­ished at work for miss­ing time due to ill­ness or caring for a fam­ily mem­ber.

On sev­er­al of these meas­ures—for in­stance, “fall­ing short” at work to care for an­oth­er fam­ily mem­ber—wo­men were slightly more likely than men to re­port a prob­lem. But the big­ger di­vide came between the 53 per­cent of work­ers who in­dic­ated that they still fol­low a con­ven­tion­al 9-to-5 sched­ule and the 47 per­cent who do not. Those out­side of the 9-to-5 track were much more likely to say they had gone to work sick be­cause they couldn’t take time off; that they had missed per­son­al ex­per­i­ences be­cause of pres­sure to work; and that they had missed im­port­ant fam­ily ex­per­i­ences be­cause they were denied time off from work. And just over one-fifth of those out­side of the 9-to-5 track said they have worked dif­fer­ent shifts than their spouse or part­ner be­cause that was the only way they could provide child care.

Rachel Mis­tretta, 30, of Jamestown, N.Y., tried ex­actly that route, hold­ing a job in the pub­lic school sys­tem and work­ing op­pos­ite shifts from her hus­band to provide care for their two daugh­ters. But she found that sched­ule “caused a lot of chaos for our chil­dren and in our home”—and now she op­er­ates a part-time pho­to­graphy busi­ness out of her house so she can stay home with her kids. That de­cision, though, only set off an­oth­er dom­ino. To re­place her lost in­come, her hus­band has needed to add more side jobs, which has left him fa­cing a “con­stant struggle” to spend his own time with their chil­dren. Such are the ne­go­ti­ations and trade-offs con­front­ing many Amer­ic­an work­ers as they struggle with the tur­bu­lent con­ver­gence of rising fam­ily de­mands and stag­nant in­comes.

The latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll is the 21st in a series ex­amin­ing how Amer­ic­ans are ex­per­i­en­cing the chan­ging eco­nomy. This poll, which ex­plored how Amer­ic­ans rate their pro­gress at nav­ig­at­ing their ob­lig­a­tions at work, at home, and in their com­munity, sur­veyed 1,000 adults by land­line and cell phones Oct. 22-26. The sur­vey has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.1 per­cent­age points. The sur­vey was su­per­vised by Ed Re­illy, Jeremy Ruch, and Jocelyn Land­au of FTI Con­sult­ing’s Stra­tegic Com­mu­nic­a­tions prac­tice.

Janie Boschma contributed to this article.
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