Americans have got it relatively good compared to the rest of the world, but not everyone is seeing the same gains from its economic growth.
M. Scott Brauer for The Wall Street Journal
The U.S. needs to focus on improving well-being more broadly for its citizens, particularly as long working hours and stark income inequality are hindering quality of life, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development  said in its recent economic survey of the U.S. It highlighted a notable divide between the levels of happiness among high-income and low-wage workers, and the difficulties many dual-earner families face.
Much of what’s weighing on Americans’ quality of life is poor work-life balance, an area where the U.S. ranks particularly low. Americans’ working hours are among the longest in the OECD: 11% of Americans work 50 hours or more per week, compared to the OECD average of 9%. They also leave less time for fun, devoting less time to their leisure and personal care compared to their OECD peers.
Long work hours, in addition to stressful work conditions, create challenges not only for work-life balance, but also for child education, personal care and leisure, according to the OECD.
“These pressures are contributing to higher job strain and work-related stress with unhealthy consequences, including for mental health, and a detrimental impact on employability and medical costs,” it said.
Work-life balance has become especially difficult for households with children as more women have entered the workforce, the report said. Dual-earner families face more time pressures as higher total work hours leave less time for child care or housework.
More family-supportive public policies, as well as more public spending supporting families, would help reduce some of these pressures and improve Americans’ well-being, the OECD said. After all, the U.S.–the only OECD country without a national paid parental leave policy–spent 0.4% of gross domestic product on early education and care for pre-kindergarten children, compared to the OECD average of 0.7% of GDP.
The OECD pointed to access to paid family leave, flexible working arrangements and better access to early childhood education–especially for low and moderate income children–as some of the key steps that could alleviate poor work-life balances.
Such steps could especially benefit and improve the well-being of lower-income families, who tend to report lower levels of happiness, the OECD said. Only 35% of Americans with annual household incomes less than $10,000 reported that they were “very happy,” compared with 65% of those earning between $100,000 and $250,000 a year.
To help narrow this well-being gap between income groups, the U.S. could also raise earnings by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit along with offering a higher minimum wage, since many of these workers face low pay along with lower-quality jobs, the OECD said.
“Self-reported happiness increases with income, an issue particularly resonant in a country with among the highest levels of income inequality in the OECD,” it added.