Why U.S. Needs Paid Family Leave

Only two countries in the advanced world provide no guarantee for paid leave from work to care for a newborn child. Last spring one of the two, Australia, gave up that dubious distinction by establishing paid family leave starting in 2011. I wasn't surprised when this didn't make the news here in the United States—we're now the only wealthy country without such a policy.

But we did take one small step recently: on June 4th, the House of Representatives passed a paid family leave bill for federal employees, the nation's single largest workforce. The House actually passed a similar bill last year only to have it killed in the Senate— bringing the matter back again signals a growing struggle.In that light, the Australian case is not as remote as it may seem. When Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was elected from the Labor Party in 2007 (Australian Labor is like our liberal Democrats), he campaigned on the promise of defending families. But he wasn't simply campaigning for more social benefits from government: instead, he challenged the opposing Liberal Party (Australia's version of our Republicans) on their own terrain: the culture war. He described their culture war, which like ours has long been focused on "family values," as a complete fraud. The more the conservatives talked about family, Rudd forcefully declared, the less they did to protect the family from what is truly threatening its vitality and cohesion, namely, "corrosive" market forces and an unbalanced economic power structure extracting more and more labor from families in return for lower wages and benefits and less security. So in some sense Rudd ran against the conservatives from the right, as the protector of families against destructive forces. But he did so in the terms of government responsibility, the traditional standpoint of the left. If the United States is to follow Australia out of the family-policy void, this kind of left-right dynamic may be important in a similar way.

While the United States has been a leader on equal opportunity in the work place, a 2007 McGill University study found that we are far behind in terms of supporting parents and balancing work and family. In fact, says author Jody Heymann, America ranks "among the worst." In the study of 173 countries, we stood with Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea as the only countries providing no paid maternity leave. Of the 169 countries that guarantee paid maternity leave, 98 of them provide 14 or more weeks. Among wealthy countries—except ours—parents are entitled to as much as 47 weeks of paid family leave.

To get an idea of how much other countries invest in family leave, consider the comparatively ungenerous Australian policy: eligible working parents receive payments equal to the federal minimum wage, approximately $543 weekly, for a maximum of eighteen weeks of leave. Under another Australian policy passed earlier, every birth or adoption of a child entitles the parent or parents to a "baby bonus" of approximately $5,000 per child plus other benefits.

Or consider France, where parents are entitled to a veritable cornucopia of financial benefits, starting with universal "family allowances" that begin with the second child—$164 monthly for two children and $375 monthly if there are three children. In addition, there are means-tested subsidies for child care, including a birth/adoption grant of $1,200; a "basic" monthly child-care allowance of $236 during the first three years, complimented by further subsidies for paid professional child care until a child's sixth birthday; or a family leave benefit of $731 monthly if one parent leaves work to provide home care (and does not take the "basic" child care benefit).

Such policies sometimes have different social purposes. Policies like the Australian baby bonus are termed "familism," as they are clearly designed to increase the number of children. In contrast, parental leave policies are designed to create a better "work-family balance," actually helping working mothers stay attached to the workplace and remain productive contributors to the economy. Familist, or "natalist" policies, as they are sometimes described, have a long legacy in Europe, particularly in countries with a strong Catholic heritage. But as more women have entered the workforce in recent decades, family policy is increasingly part of a broader discussion about the link between family responsibilities and women's economic status and productivity. Some would argue that the lack of sufficient support for family responsibilities is undermining the economy by weakening women's ties to employment and limiting their opportunities for advancement. As women contribute more and more to household buying power (44 percent of earnings in dual-income households) and increasingly predominate in high-growth fields such as education and health care, paid parental leave is not just a social benefit but an essential support system for national productivity.

The United States does have one explicit family policy, the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993. It entitles workers to as much as 12 weeks unpaid leave for care of a newborn or dealing with a family medical problem. Despite the modesty of the benefit, the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups fought it bitterly, describing it as "government-run personnel management" and a "dangerous precedent." In fact, every step of the way, as (usually) Democratic leaders have tried to introduce work-family balance measures into the law, business groups have been strongly opposed.

An early example of this clash between business thinking and family needs is also the most revealing. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, passed in 1978, made it illegal for an employer to fire or penalize a female employee simply because she is pregnant. The business groups that tried to defeat the bill argued that firing a pregnant woman is not discrimination because pregnancy is a "voluntary condition." It's her fault if she decides to have children! That is how business (certainly big business) views the family, as a worker's "choice," a self-inflicted wound. Never mind that having children perpetuates the human race and creates the next generation of workers and citizens for our country. If doing all of that for society means that the company gets less, the company has every right to rid itself of such burdens—at least that's what big business believes.

The problem is, we don't see the social costs to the family if we view the family as a matter of personal choice. As Yale law professor Anne Alstott argues, justifying parental support depends on defining the family as a social good that, in some sense, society must pay for. In her book No Exit: What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents, she argues that parents are burdened in many ways with a single overarching rule in their lives: there is "no exit" when it comes to children. "Society expects—and needs—parents to provide their children with continuity of care, meaning the intensive, intimate care that human beings need to develop their intellectual, emotional, and moral capabilities. And society expects—and needs—parents to persist in their role for 18 years, or longer if needed."

While most parents do this out of love, there are public penalties for not providing care. What parents do, in other words, is of deep concern to the state, for the obvious reason that caring for children is not only morally urgent but essential for the future of society. The state recognizes this in the large body of family laws that govern children's welfare, yet parents receive little help in meeting the life-changing obligations society imposes. To classify parenting as a personal"choice" for which there is no collective responsibility, like the Chamber of Commerce does, is not merely to ignore the social benefits of good parenting; really, it is to steal those benefits because they accrue to the whole of society as today's children become tomorrow's productive citizenry. In fact, by some estimates, the value of parental investments in children, investments of time and money (including lost wages), is equal to 20 to 30 percent of gross domestic product. If these investments generate huge social benefits—as they clearly do—the benefits of providing more social support for the family should be that much clearer.

The modest family leave bill passed by the House this spring provides four weeks of paid leave for federal employees. With growing concern about intrusive government and the exploding public debt, the fact that this bill is targeted for federal employees might insure that it never becomes law. If it does become law, and moves us up a few slots from our dismal global ranking on family support, there's still a long way to go before we reach the sort of "two-way obligation" Alstott describes between society and parents. Even modest paid leave for all working parents would mean radical change from the status quo, and such changes almost never occur in America until the political costs of inaction rise. This is what happened when a Democratic president signed the welfare reform bill in 1996. It's what happened to the Australian conservatives who got hoisted on their own petard as enemies of the family. And there is a similar lesson about conservative values in both cases: whoever defines their policies in those terms can sweep into power in uncertain times, sometimes even if business doesn't like it. For family policy in America, there may be no other way.

Lew Daly is a Senior Fellow at Dēmos, a policy organization in New York City. He is the author of God's Economy (University of Chicago Press) and Unjust Deserts (New Press).