A Critical Juncture for Health: Heidi Hartmann and Will Dow Discuss New P4A Research Hub on Work-Family-Supports

10.25.2018
Commentary
Latina mother and daughter sit at kitchen table

Heidi Hartmann and Will Dow are the codirectors of P4A’s new Research Hub at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) and the University of California, Berkeley. The hub will focus on income enhancement and workplace policies that help working parents, especially those struggling to make ends meet, to have the time and financial resources to protect and invest in their family’s health. We sat down with them to learn more about their research portfolio and why it matters for policymakers, advocates, and community leaders.

Will and Heidi, can you tell us about how you are collaborating to study the connections between income and workplace policies and the health and well-being of families with children?

HEIDI: This is an area we’ve been working in for 30 years, and we’re very excited to look more closely at the health effects. Both IWPR and the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) at UC Berkeley attack a broad range of policies in our research, and we’re interested in every aspect of social policy. Because of the aging population, because of the diversity of our population, we want to learn what works and with whom. We all want to improve health care and reduce costs. That would allow our nation to spend money on other things we also want: housing, education, income assistance, green parks, art, culture.

As a country, we’re facing a critical juncture in these types of policies. And the health piece is very exciting – it’s a huge motivator and mobilizer for families and workers. It’s the dominant issue in this election cycle. Voters care about it. Therefore, policymakers care about it.

WILL: At Berkeley, we have a multidisciplinary set of faculty at the frontiers of economics, sociology, public policy, and public health and they are at the frontier of exploring the nexus between health and employment. As someone in public health, we care about where people live, play and work. We spend so much of our day at work – it’s crucial to focus on the employment piece of the puzzle.

Having IWPR as the partner in this really extends what we could possibly think about doing. They have such a good track record of working with the policy community and working on external communications—turning the basic research into action-oriented research briefs and events. It extends what we can do, and brings it to the policy sphere so much more quickly and robustly.

Your hub will also work closely with Ascend at The Aspen Institute. Can you tell us more about this partnership and why it’s important?

HEIDI: Ascend at the Aspen Institute represents a very important partner for practice and policy activities. They’re also very experienced in the business of translating research into accessible language for use by policymakers and the advocacy community. Ascend will help us frame all the policy issues we’re working on, and help narrow down the rapid response projects we’ll be doing.

What kinds of policies will you be examining? What are some big questions you’re hoping to help answer?

HEIDI: The issue of care—not having enough caregivers, not doing enough to make sure our entire population is being cared for (especially those who cannot care for themselves)—becomes increasingly urgent every day. We’re also the only country in the world without paid family leave, and we’re the only advanced country in the world without a system of paid sick leave. You can get the flu, you can have cancer, you can trip on the sidewalk—whatever happens to you, you could lose your income. We’re handicapped because we don’t have policies like paid family leave and help with families’ childcare costs.

This type of project is urgently needed now, partly because we have cut back on social supports for workers, families and individuals, and also because we’re just not keeping up with other countries around the world. This project allows us to get into depth on these issues, and produce actionable, reliable information that we hope all policymakers are looking for and will listen to.

One of our contributions to the whole work-family policy area is the development of a very sophisticated simulation model that can estimate the costs of designing a paid family leave program.  If your state, or city, or county (or nation) doesn’t have a paid family leave program, or has one that can be improved upon, by using the equations in the model, we can tell you a lot about any proposal you have – how much it would cost to provide the benefits, who would get these benefits, and how those benefits would be distributed.

WILL: In developing our projects, we were looking for salient gaps in what other people have been doing. Take the minimum wage. There’s been such a large literature on minimum wage, but not the effects on health -- there’s starting to be work on this, but it is really still in its infancy. The effects of minimum wage on employment have been so controversial, and I think for the credibility of moving this into the policy sphere, we have to have work which is using the most reliable methods so we can get broad-based academic buy-in. That allows us to have a much more robust and I think, ultimately, longer-term policy impact on this field.

People say we don’t need to wait for the research literature to establish with great certainty what these results are. But if we don’t establish it in a strong way, it risks undermining the credibility of the policy efforts and slows down those efforts.

Is income always the mediating factor to better health and well-being? Or is it more complicated than that?

WILL: For low-income families, an increase in income of a few thousand dollars can actually be very significant in terms of the well-being of their kids. But having higher wages can also enable more flexibility on the part of the family – not to have to work two jobs, or to choose jobs that have a more family friendly component to them (rather than only seeking the highest-wage job). So, half of our hub projects are related to enhancing family incomes, and the other half are related to workplace regulation, including regulations around family friendly work schedules and paid family leave.

Many working caregivers simply can’t afford to take leave because they can’t pay their bills if their income goes down. What paid leave can do is replace the income they would have received while they were working and allow them to spend time with their kids at critical times in the life course. And that’s where we have a great deal of evidence - that spending time with kids in these early points in their childhoods can have permanent, lifetime benefits. What we’re trying to understand now is what are the types of leave policies that are actually influential in allowing more people to take that leave time and spend that time with their kids.

Most of these policies vary greatly from one state to another. Why study state-level policies, especially now?

WILL: Many stakeholders would like to see more robust federal policies in this arena. In the current policy environment, it doesn’t look like that’s likely in the short run. But what we can do right now is take advantage of the fact that we have such active experimentation at the sub-federal level. Much of this is going on at the state level, and at the level of localities, and the level of employers as well. We want to learn from all this and cross-fertilize ideas – not only from one state to another, but across states, municipalities, and employers –  helping each understand what might actually be a win-win for them to start doing proactively without waiting for federal legislation.

HEIDI: Using our simulation model we have estimated the costs and benefits of different policy options for paid leave programs at all governmental levels. We’ve also extended these findings to national programs that test many different policy parameters—how much does it cost to expand eligibility, for example.  Being a member of the P4A team and working with Will and others at Berkeley allows us to add the health impacts of these policy changes to our already comprehensive simulation model.

Your research hub will also produce some “rapid response” projects. Can you tell us more about these?

WILL: Our rapid response projects are designed to take strong research that’s already completed, and that with some additional modeling and analysis can fairly quickly lead to tailored new evidence and new knowledge that would be particularly beneficial for very specific policy conversations going on now or that we know are upcoming.

HEIDI: We built a large network of partners into our project to make sure that our work is accessible and focused on the issues that people care about. We also want to open it up to everyone working in the area—policymakers, voters, other researchers, public interest groups—to give us suggestions for issues and topics they’re interested in, and how and when they’d like to see those topics develop.

Thank you, Will and Heidi! We’re so excited to have you on board!

Have an idea for a rapid response project? Send us an email at policies4action@urban.org.

 

Photo by Jose Luis Carrascosa/Shutterstock

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