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Family balancing act

Juggling work and home life is an issue we all face on a daily basis, but for families living in poverty it’s more than just a delicate balancing act. In an age when more parents of young children are working outside the home than ever before, many lower-income caregivers are forced to make difficult decisions that put their jobs, their health, and the health and safety of their loved ones, at risk. 

Jody Heymann, founding Director of McGill’s Institute for Health and Social Policy and a paediatrician with a PhD in public policy, is dedicated to shedding light on the challenges that working families face the world over. Heymann and her research team spent more than a decade analyzing global working conditions for the Project on Global Working Families, the most ambitious study of its kind in history. What they found was both surprising and heart wrenching.

Too often, Heymann says, parents living in poverty in low-income countries are forced to leave their children alone at home while they go to work, with no affordable childcare options or alternate means of survival. “We are talking about children as young as two or three,” she notes.  Heymann's work has detailed the immense toll taken on children when sisters and brothers drop out of primary school to provide care for preschoolers, preschoolers are injured and killed when left home alone, and parents lose jobs essential to feeding their families.

And while conditions are worse in the developing world, families in the West face similar challenges. “Core issues are universal,” says Heymann. “Parents the world over must find a way to care for their children, disabled and elderly family members while working.”

In the United States, for example, there is no government-mandated paid sick leave, and most low wage workers don't receive any paid sick days from their employers. As a result, low income parents regularly resort to leaving their sick children home alone, or sending them to school. If they choose to stay home from work, they risk losing their jobs and falling into deeper poverty. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that Heymann believes is preventable.

Heymann is putting her research into action, working with international NGOs, governments and businesses to change both public and private policy. Already, her research on working families in the United States has helped provide the academic weight behind the country’s first paid sick leave legislation, in California.

“The long-term goal is to transform working conditions so that individual countries and businesses can thrive, but working family members can afford to care for themselves and for their children,” says Heymann. “It won’t be an easy task to make that happen globally, but it can be done.”