PhD student Erica Mildner investigates the gender divide in family welfare policy knowledge in sole-authored paper

“What do prospective parents know about family welfare incentives?” UBC Sociology PhD student Erica Mildner recently published a sole-authored paper in Community, Work & Family investigating this question in the contexts of the United States and Hungary.

We spoke to Erica about her research and its findings.

Could you briefly summarize your study and its main findings? 

Faced with low birthrates, many countries have introduced incentive programs like “baby bonuses” or tax credits to encourage their citizens to have children. Little is known about what citizens know about these programs when they are considering having children, and men’s knowledge of these programs is frequently ignored. I interviewed 11 prospective parents in Hungary, where middle-class individuals are heavily financially rewarded for having three or more children, and 15 prospective parents in the U.S., where individuals do not receive significant financial support for having any number of children. In Hungary, individuals were aware of the government’s family welfare incentives in precise detail. In the U.S., there was a sharp divide in welfare knowledge by gender. Prospective mothers had much greater knowledge, and anxiety about, their limited family support compared to prospective fathers. 

How does this study fit into or connect with the other research that you’ve done? 

I am interested in the intersection of gender, labor, and family welfare policy. More specifically, I am drawn to research that interrogates how government policy can reinforce or challenge traditional gendered divisions of labor. For my dissertation project at UBC, I am researching pandemic-era shifts in employment attitudes, following popular narratives including the “Great Resignation” and “Quiet-Quitting,” again with particular attention to how work orientation may have shifted by gender and parental status. 

Why did you choose to focus on and compare the United States and Hungary in this study? 

The United States and Hungary make a compelling pair for this study because both countries share a history of racialized and stigmatized access to family welfare. The U.S. and Hungary also share an ideological commitment among right-wing factions to demographic nationalism, or the effort to raise domestic birthrates to preserve the racial and ethnic status quo, in lieu of migration. This alignment was promoted during a 2019 conference between U.S. and Hungarian officials called “Making Families Great Again.” At the same time, only Hungary has introduced a series of direct policy incentives to encourage citizens to have more children, while the U.S. remains one of the only countries in the world without paid parental leave. With historic and ideological similarities, but divergent welfare policy approaches, this study allowed me to compare how these distinct policy approaches might shape prospective parents’ welfare knowledge. 

How does your research advance scholarship about the mental load and gendered welfare policy framing? How do policy measures shape the gendered division of labor even before a child is conceived? 

My research reveals that in a privatized welfare context like the U.S., where it is left to individuals to seek out information about family supports, it is often prospective mothers, rather than prospective fathers who gather information on family welfare, in line with the gendered division of labor. Most mental load research focuses on how couples plan for and facilitate family life after a child is born. My study shows that this process can begin years before a child is conceived—where female partners, rather than their male counterparts, compile family policy knowledge. This pre-parenthood mental load resulted in U.S. women expressing much more stress and anxiety about their desire for children than U.S. men. Though U.S. men frequently stated their desire for an egalitarian partnership, a typical refrain was: “That’s a good question!” when asked about available parental leave or childcare support provided by the government or their employer. 

In Hungary, there was widespread knowledge of the new family welfare incentives, commonly from the government’s advertising campaign on highway billboards and metro stops, as well as in speeches from the prime minister. Despite this common knowledge, it is important to note that Hungarian respondents also expressed skepticism and mockery that these programs could alter their desires for a particular number of children. Overall, while the public versus private nature of the welfare state might mediate family welfare knowledge by gender, it is unclear whether knowledge of these programs alone can alter individuals’ childbearing decisions. 

What implications does your study have for policymakers when it comes to family welfare policy? 

My study has several implications for policymakers to reduce the gender divide in family welfare policy knowledge. First, policymakers should work to publicize new benefits as widely as possible, and even work to target information to prospective fathers. Policymakers could also require that employers post information about family welfare policies in job descriptions to take the burden off private individuals to research their benefits or face stigma for contacting their employer with work-family questions. Second, policymakers could take a life-course approach, and include information on family welfare benefits in high-school and college courses, giving prospective mothers and fathers an equal opportunity to learn about the family welfare landscape and plan accordingly.  

While each of these are important steps, the larger goal is for governments to support individuals to form whatever kind of family that they choose. The U.S. provides minimal support to new parents while Hungary specifically targets family support to middle- and upper-class families with at least three children. Tying family welfare to demographic and political aims is a dangerous precedent, one that is currently being used to promote the white supremacist “Great Replacement” ideology. At the end of the day, regardless of demographics, universal and generous support for families with policies like paid parental leave, subsidized childcare, early childhood education, and flexible work arrangements are all necessary for work-family justice.