Economic trends threaten families' health

First published in Newsday

After listening to President Barack Obama's job-creation address last week, I kept coming back to the idea that he wants to give payroll tax breaks to businesses that offer people pay raises. That struck me as odd, given that unemployment stands at 9.1 percent, and you'd think that this hard-times president would be focused exclusively on getting people back to work.

But even people with jobs are facing time and money pressures in this economy, pressures that are bad for families' health.

Certainly, putting cash in people's pockets should help to rev up the listless consumer economy. But it looks like the president is also acknowledging just how much wages have eroded in the last couple of decades.

Real wages have been declining since 1983 and that means the middle class has less buying power. At the same time, the average American has added around a month's worth of work -- 164 hours per year -- in the past two decades. The number of dual-income households has risen, as well as the number of people working multiple jobs. It's not hard to imagine that people are putting in more time at work to make up for the erosion in their wages. That sounds like a very busy -- an overly busy -- middle class.

This busyness has consequences for the mental and physical health of parents and children -- and study after study substantiates this. A six-year study of 11,540 working parents in France, published in 2007, showed that people who had higher work stress or greater family demands were more likely to miss work due to poor mental health, particularly depression. Research on working parents in New York's Erie County demonstrated a relationship between family-work conflict and depression, heavy alcohol consumption, poor physical health and high blood pressure.

Time pressures also contribute to weight problems. For the first time in history, there are more overweight than underweight adults worldwide, according to new research at American University. A study published in the January-February issue of the journal Child Development found that children's body mass index rose the more years their mothers worked over their lifetimes. One explanation offered is that working parents have limited time for grocery shopping and food preparation.

Not so long ago, as a society we were asking, is it better for families if parents stay home with kids or work outside the home? Moms were usually the parents in question. Now, because of steadily declining purchasing power, for most people, it's less a matter of choice than necessity.

I have to ask myself, was this a conscious decision? Did Americans choose "working parents" as the better alternative? Was it a good direction or have we lost something in the translation? Have we perhaps given too little thought to how parents can give both their employers and their children what they need?

The financial and time pressures on families are what make us so vulnerable to implied criticisms, like those on display in Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." It registered so strongly with American parents because we're insecure about having adequate resources to meet the challenges of raising children now.

It's too early to tell if the Obama tax break, if adopted, will be effective in raising people's wages, or even whether, if we made more money, we would choose to spend more time with our children. But it's worth trying to reverse some of the trends that are putting so much pressure on families' health.