When Being the ‘Odd One Out’ Hurts Families

ParentsBy Dana Raphael.

Papua New Guinea and the United States are the only two developed countries in the world that offer no paid parental leave.Though the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does provide parents twelve weeks of job-protected parental leave, there is no required compensation. In a country that prides itself on “family values,” this void leaves parents in a bind about whether they can afford to stay home to care for a newborn.

So why the lack of paid leave? Some historians look to the aftermath of World War II for explanation. Due to decimated populations, European countries needed women both in the workforce as well as having children – the solution: increased maternity benefits. The U.S. didn’t face the same pressures. Later, advocates fearing that expanding childcare rights would give children the right to sue their parents helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. President Nixon famously vetoed the Comprehensive Child Care Act, which would have provided day-care centers to most Americans. Furthermore, under the Reagan administration, paid leave faced intense opposition, considered as a form of government overreach.

Other countries have realized the importance of paid leave, culminating in the International Labor Organization (ILO), an agency of the United Nations, issuing three maternity leave standards. First, women should have a minimum of fourteen weeks off. Second, women should be reimbursed at least two-thirds of their previous salaries. Third, the state should pay almost the entire benefit. The U.S. does not meet a single benchmark.

The U.S. should seek to meet the ILO’s standards. In addition, we should offer benefits to fathers. Offering paid parental leave – referring to both maternity and paternity leave – helps cut costs to the state, gives families more options with family planning, and challenges gender norms in caring for children.

The state should take responsibility for paying parental leave because of a vested interest in promoting stable families, which will in turn lower state costs. Allowing new parents to adjust increases the likelihood they will return to their jobs and decreases the chances that they will suffer financially, meaning fewer will rely on food stamps, welfare, and other costly government programs. Assisting new parents with financial stability increases the likelihood that the family will stay stable, an outcome better for the child and future society.

Paid parental leave allows families more time to decide how to proceed with their careers in addition to raising a child, without the burden of missing paychecks. With an estimated 25 to 40 percent of Americans living from paycheck to paycheck, providing paid leave allows new parents to arrange for daycare, deal with health problems, and bond with their newborn.

Excluded from the FMLA, new fathers who chose to stay home do not have security in the ability to return to their jobs. This creates a gender dichotomy where new mothers are expected to stay home and where the state doesn’t value fathers’ roles equally. The National Organization for Women best articulated, “We reject the notion that mothers have a special child care role that is not to be shared equally by fathers.” According to researcher Scott Coltrane, “Fathers who take leave end up doing more of the routine work later … It’s just kind of an early buy-in that helps men stay involved later.” He points to countries such as Norway where eight in ten new fathers take leave. However, since U.S. fathers “don’t have wage replacement,” they can’t afford to take time off. Extending paid parental leave to fathers would help push toward a society where men and women care for children and work in equal numbers. Furthermore, by increasing expectations of men’s participation in parenting, we can eliminate the motherhood penalty – the career setbacks mothers typically face.  

The U.S. is one of two developed countries that chooses not to recognize the benefits that paid parental leave provides both parents and the state because it chooses not to mandate paid parental leave. It is time that we recognize the dual importance of rearing children and working and make investments that support working families.

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