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We live in a swiftly changing world with lots of big problems, like climate change, wars, and wealth inequality — so when a problem doesn’t seem to directly affect us, it’s hard for us to care. Paid parental leave is one of those issues that many women and men don’t feel truly applies to them, but it’s an issue that affects everyone in ways we don’t necessarily expect. In fact, the lack of paid parental leave in the United States is blocking our way to building a fair, equal society for all human beings – regardless of whether they have children or not.
It’s a Human Rights Issue
The United States is one of only two countries (the other being Papua New Guinea) not to mandate paid maternity leave for all employed women. In sectors of the U.S. economy, from fast food restaurants to academia, women are expected to work until the moment of childbirth and then are expected to return to work with little time to care for and bond with their children. The situation has become fairly dire: 16% of women took no more than four weeks off from work after childbirth, and 33% took no leave at all.
Expectations like these have given the United States a reputation for exploitation of its workers for explosive economic growth. Lack of paid leave forces mothers and fathers to choose between bonding with their children after birth or saving their careers with exorbitant childcare costs. The lack of mandated parental leave for new parents means childbirth is punitive and that the United States still values the labor of men more than women. On that note…
Paid Leave for Parents is Essential to Equality for Women
A range of women’s rights issues revolve around motherhood and the disproportionate burden women bear for child-rearing. Parental leave – not just maternal leave – is one of the biggest steps toward equality for women. Paid leave for both parents equalizes the responsibility for children between sexes rather than assuming that women should care for children and men should support their families entirely on their own. These attitudes about how women should give up more than men for their children is persistent and has resulted in paternity leave being far less ubiquitous and accounting only for a faction of parental leave taken across the globe.
Even in European countries, where some of the world’s most progressive policies regarding childbirth can be found, the assumption of women’s role as sole caretaker of children is assumed. In Sweden, where fathers are entitled to share 16 months of parental leave with mothers, fathers only take about 25% of parental leave.
Today, despite evolving perceptions of shared parenting responsibilities, childcare is still disproportionately expected of women. Women bear most of the burden for childcare in two main ways: they take huge pay-cuts to have children, or they leave the workforce entirely to avoid paying exorbitant childcare fees. In 2014, one-third of mothers were stay-at-home parents (versus only about 16% of men), the vast majority of them having completely left the workforce out of economic necessity. In 31 states, daycare has gotten so expensive that college tuition is cheaper. Rather than devote their entire salaries to daycare, women have found it more practical to stay home.
Without paid leave to help offset the cost of childcare after birth, women are left with stark options when deciding to have children, often discussing with their partners as part of the conversation when, not if, it will be most advantageous to quit their jobs. Such conversations are scary to employers, who believe for “common sense” reasons that offering paid leave will result in money being lost on female employees (more on this later).
As long as giving up careers is required of women and only women, or paying childcare costs is more daunting than continuing to work, women can never truly be equal in the workforce with men, of whom society does not have the same expectations regarding responsibility. The back-burner-ing of paid leave is a symptom of society’s attitude towards women across the board, and providing paid leave whittles away at assumptions about women’s place in society and the home.
Paid Leave for Parents is Essential to Class Equity
Paid leave is primarily a women’s issue that can affect women of all economic statuses, but it is just as much a class issue. Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), an employee can take “job-protected” unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks a year for events like childbirth and illness, but only if the employee has worked for a “covered employer” – meaning that his or her employer has at least 50 employees – for around 30 hours a week for at least one year. On top of that, even if an employee works for a company with more than 50 employees but less than 50 of those employees are located within 75 miles of where the employee works, FMLA does not apply.
According to labor statistic data from April 2016, at least 26 million people in the United States are employed part-time – many of whom employers avoid giving more hours to to avoid providing such benefits as the FMLA. As a result, loopholes in the law have allowed for both larger corporations and smaller businesses to avoid giving job-protected, unpaid leave to women of all classes — but especially those in lower-paying jobs with fewer employee protections.
Paid parental leave will help us achieve equity (same advantages) as opposed to equality (same opportunities) for families across the economic spectrum. Without paid leave, the gap between children of rich and poor families will continue to broaden, and women in lower-paying jobs will continue to be financially vulnerable during pregnancy and childbirth. Here again, we hit on the human rights issue: children of poor families disproportionately bear the burden of the lack of paid leave policies.
Quality childcare is easier to come by with more money. A poor family, which starts out with fewer resources, has to depend on less qualified childcare services because it is what they can afford. Providing paid parental leave and giving men and women the chance to care for their families in the early stages, regardless of their social class, will go a long way toward evening the playing field for children of this generation and all future ones.
Paid Leave for Parents is Good for Social Health (aka Everyone)
It’s easy to pretend that children do not affect anyone but the people who have them, but in reality, how we treat parents is good for society.
Quality time with children enriches the environments they are brought up in, and taking children away from their parents can greatly affect family dynamics and parents’ awareness of their child’s development and possible issues. Absentee parenting is mostly a consequence of parents making a choice between feeding their families and spending time with them. Quality time with families is ultimately better for a child’s mental health and the health of the family.
Providing paid leave reduces the stress of the current unpaid leave policy and allows care of the child to be the focus of the parents. Studies even show that the more time men are able to spend with their children in early childhood, their brains literally begin to change, and they ultimately learn to become better parents. More aware parents can lead to healthier children. Healthy children are better for society because they require less social services later on. It is a “stitch in time saves nine” situation – we can either spend the money upfront or we can spend more money on fixing problems we created.
Allowing new parents time without the stress of financial worries to form families and learn how to be good parents eases later burdens on social safety nets. Evidence points to paid leave helping women get back into the workforce earlier rather than leaving it entirely, as employers assume will happen. The same study finds that “women who take paid leave are 39 percent less likely to receive public assistance and 40 percent less likely to receive food stamps in the year following a child’s birth.” If all citizens fought for employers to provide paid leave as part of the cost of hiring employees, then ultimately we all pay less for services that able-bodied parents no longer need as they are able to support themselves.
Paid parental leave is emerging as a fundamental right for parents who want to build stable, loving families. The argument has always been that the cost for such a right is far too high for the United States to pay it, but it actually seems as though the price will be much, much higher if we do not actively advocate to help young mothers and fathers now.