ORELL: Strong relationships at home improve employment outcomes for adults and children


The term “work-life balance” is often credited to Lillian Gilbreth, a psychologist, industrial engineer, educator, and author of a dissertation on living and working efficiently. Lillian, along with her husband, fellow engineer Frank Gilbreth, raised 12 children while publishing foundational work in the field of time-motion studies. The Gilbreths were known as “geniuses at the art of living” and became the inspiration for Cheaper by the Dozen, amid-century family comedy classic based on the family’s life in Montclair, New Jersey.

Most people think “work-life balance” suggests that work and family life are inherently in tension, opposite ends of a scale that must reach an equilibrium for an individual to achieve a full and satisfying life. Recent research by the Administration for Children and Families on its Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood (HMRF) program, suggests the opposite: When both work-life and home-life are healthy, they should be better thought of as mutually reinforcing.

Mathematica Policy Research (MPR) recently reviewed the relationship and employment outcomes for participants in HMRF programs. MPR found that participation in relationship counseling or relationship workshops tended to increase economic self-sufficiency, boost financial literacy, and improve attitudes toward employment. Stronger relationship skills were also associated with increased income, higher employment levels, and lower levels of financial stress. As individuals and couples learned the skills necessary to build stable relationships at home — conflict resolution, emotional self-regulation, and effective communications — they also applied those skills on the job. The noncognitive skills that support relationships at home are critical to the workplace.

MPR’s review is the second paper in the past three years to show positive effects of HMRF programs for the mainly low-income and disadvantaged couples who take part in them. Even these modest improvements are hard to find in social services evaluation literature, meaning that, at a minimum, HMRF programs should be continued and further studied.

Beyond supporting adults through HMRF grants, we need to think about second-generation effects of HMRF programs on children. In our efforts to increase skills and income, we sometimes forget that long-term employment success depends upon a sub-stratum of noncognitive skills that are too often taken for granted. The “seedbed” for these noncognitive skills isn’t the classroom but the living room. Children who don’t develop relational capacities early in life often end up struggling as adults, personally and professionally. Today’s family formation crisis has proven itself to be the key driver of intergenerational poverty because the children of broken families are more likely to experience the kinds of traumas and associated noncognitive deficits that help cause school drop-out, criminal justice involvement, and a new cycle of disrupted family formation. Investing in stable families may allow us to achieve two things at once: greater adult happiness and stronger economic outcomes, while setting the stage for more intergenerational success among children. This is the sort of efficiency that the Gilbreth’s would love.

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