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Individual and Economic Benefits of Mandated Parental Leave in the United States

Info: 3859 words (15 pages) Essay
Published: 12th Nov 2021 in Social Policy

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The World Health Organization advised that “‘women need at least 16 weeks of absence from work after delivery’ to protect the health of both mother and child” (qtd. in Baker and Milligan 656). Yet according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, of 35 first world countries, the United States is the only country with an average of 0 weeks’ maternity leave, and an average of $0 maternity pay granted (3). While the Family and Medical Leave Act mandates that employers must provide 12 weeks’ leave to workers to care for new children (Ingraham), the United States lacks any federal law which states that employers must provide employees with any pay during that time. Only three states, California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, require employers to provide any pay to new parents while on leave (Mejeur).

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This research and its conclusions will seek to show the expansive issues which are the byproduct of a lack of law mandating paid leave for parents. Paid parental leave is a vital resource which must become a federal requirement in the United States in order to aid in both child development and maternal health which will ultimately benefit our society. 

Leave available to mothers in other first world nations ranges from 14 weeks to 166 weeks, with an average of just over 18 weeks (OECD 2). Currently “[m]aternity leave in the U.S. is guaranteed only through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires large employers to make 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave available each year for qualified medical or family reasons, including caring for newborn children” (Jou, et al 217). The main issues here lie within the FMLA provisions. The only employees eligible for FMLA are those who work for a company with at least 50 people on staff, and are those who have worked at minimum 1250 hours within the last 12 months (Jou, et al 217). Employees who work for small businesses or who change jobs within a year before becoming pregnant are unfairly excluded, which may mean that small businesses lose out on skilled workers who might otherwise aid in the success of their business as women may be less likely to apply to such businesses if they have plans of starting or expanding a family.

These issues are in addition to the fact that this leave is unpaid, which restricts many from taking advantage of it. Of the “76 million U.S. households…which make up the bottom 60% of income earners” about one-third have “financialobligations -- such as mortgages, rent, auto loans and leases, and credit card bills – [which] exceed 30% of their income” (Davidson 1). Additionally, one in five Americans have no savings (Davidson 1) thus many would end up in debt, potentially to the point of bankruptcy, if they were to take their FMLA-provided unpaid leave.

The financial obstacles Americans face which lead to the decision to not take FMLA-guaranteed leave ultimately impact the wellbeing of both the child and the mother. Children develop rapidly in the first few years of life thus their futures are aided by support during these milestone years. According to the Mayo Clinic, in the first three months of a baby’s life they will begin developing important motor and communication skills, in addition to honing their hearing and vision. It is suggested that parents can assist in this development by speaking to their child, holding their child, and responding to their child’s needs quickly and consistently (Mayo Clinic, Infant and Toddler Health). While the majority of daycares will accept babies as young as six weeks, the care is not parallel to that which a baby would receive in the care of his or her parent, as the ratio of caregiver to child increases within the daycare setting.

Additionally, one study found that children who spent their time as an infant in daycare “were more externalizing and aggressive in kindergarten compared to the home-reared group” (Egeland and Hiester 479). If parents were able to confidently use long-term maternity or paternity leave, children would be able to develop at home longer thus decreasing aggression in the early elementary years and promoting a better start to their formative education.

While maternity leave aids in the development of the newborn, it is also imperative for the recovery of the mother. Any death within one year of giving birth is seen as a pregnancy-related death; since 1987, pregnancy-related deaths have increased from 7.2 per 100,000 to 18 per 100,000 (Mayo Clinic, Postpartum Complications) due to a lack of access to quality health care (qtd. in Solly). Common complications include hemorrhaging, sepsis, stroke, high blood pressure, or cardiovascular issues (Mayo Clinic, Postpartum Complications). Another complication, postpartum depression, has seen a rise in awareness as women are speaking out about the effects of the hormonal changes which follow giving birth.

According to the CDC, one in nine women will suffer from postpartum depression though the rates vary per state and can be as high as one in five women. This depression is more cause for concern when considering that “recent findings suggest that suicide is the seventh leading cause of maternal death within 6 months of delivery” as it was determined that 21% of those suicides were the result of severe depression (qtd. in Sits, et al 2). A 2017 study found that “[a]mong women who took maternity leaves of 12 weeks or less, every additional week of leave was associated with a lesser odds of experiencing postpartum depressive symptoms” (Kornfeind and Sipsma 321). If all women had the opportunity and ability to take a full 12 weeks of maternity leave, it is arguable that there would be a reduction in the rate of suicide related to depression in postpartum women.

Another factor that aids in the wellbeing of both mother and child is the presence of another parent. A father’s involvement in childcare has been linked to “…a positive effect on relationships, personal development, and the social, emotional, physical and cognitive development of children” (qtd. in Karu and Tremblay 345). Other than benefits for the child, there are potential benefits for the mother when fathers take leave following the birth of their child. “More parental leave for fathers may advance a public health objective – reducing health-damaging stress among women associated with heavy workloads and multiple roles” (qtd. in Mansdotter, et al 325). This health-damaging stress is what often leads to serious physical complications or what can exacerbate postpartum depression to the point of suicidal ideation. Thus the health of both mother and child is positively affected when fathers are able to take paternity leave.

Paternity leave, while guaranteed through FMLA, similarly does not have to be paid, and is far less common through the United States. According to the World Policy Center, the United States is one of six “high-income” countries without guaranteed paid paternity leave. Of the “high-income” countries, 71% have some amount of paid paternity leave and 47% of those have at least 14 weeks of paid leave (World Policy Center). California, one of three states which requires paid paternity leave, enacted its law in 2002 and found that the “program more than doubled the odds that men would take paid parental leave after the birth of a child” (qtd. in Department of Labor 4).

The desire for paid paternity leave is on the rise nationwide, with “nine out of ten educated professional fathers” reporting that it was important to them while job hunting to know whether employers offered such leave or not; this was especially true for millennial men (qtd. in Department of Labor 4). This trend of growing interest in paternity leave demonstrates the need for federal mandates on employers as it is becoming less luxury and more expectation. In 2015, Microsoft and Netflix announced new or revised leave policies for both men and women and increased the amount of time parents could take leave, in part to close the gap with Facebook, who offered four months of paid leave (Lieber). Corporate giants such as these recognize the need for paid leave in order to attract employees with highly-desirable skill sets

 A 2016 Gallup poll found that “Millennials continue to encourage new definitions of ‘family’ and break down gender and social divides” (9). Furthermore, “Millennials are not willing to sacrifice life for work” (Gallup 31). It is arguable that Gen Z, the generation following Millennials, will have similar, if not more progressive demands as well. As these generations age, employers will continue to find an exponentially growing demand for leave which allows both parents to be present for their children’s first developmental milestones. A law requiring such leave would ultimately aid in the expansion of businesses which could attract skilled workers who otherwise might not have applied. 

In response to this demand, in March 2019 GOP senators proposed a bill that they claim would provide paid leave for new parents. Dubbed “the Cradle Act” the pay comes not from the parent’s employer, but from the parent’s own future Social Security (Ernst and Lee). This means that parents would take from a program that many worry will eventually run out, potentially escalating the program’s bankruptcy, and parents would have to delay their own retirement for what should be considered a necessary right in order to make sure that the needs of new children, or recently adopted children, are met. This is especially problematic as 9% of Millennials feel they will never be able to retire (qtd. in Hoffower, Financial Problems) given their struggles saving, which means they would not have savings available from which to borrow.

Senators Ernst and Lee make the claim that a mandate which holds employers responsible for offering pay during parental leave would hurt the economy as businesses would be forced to cut jobs and wages. However, sociologist Ruth Milkman, and economist Eileen Appelbaum, cited in a study that 89 to 99 percent of California businesses “say it has had no effect or a positive one on productivity, profitability, turnover and morale” (Miller, Economic Benefits; emphasis added). Additionally, data from European countries indicates “that rights to short periods…of paid parental leave increase the employment-to- population ratios of women by 3 to 4 percent” and “that the availability of parental leave accelerates reentry into work” (Ruhm 311, 313).

In a similar study of California, women who took leave “worked 15 to 20 percent more hours during the second year of their child’s life than those who did not take leave” and had an increase in wages by around 5 percent (qtd. in Miller, Economic Benefits).  A study through Rutgers University found that in New Jersey, women who took paid leave were 39% less likely to receive public assistance and 40% less likely to use food stamps in the year following birth, as compared with women who returned to work and did not take leave (Houser and Vartanian 2).

Of those who took unpaid leave, one-tenth “used public assistance during their leave” in order to pay for expenses (Houser and Vartanian 8). Assistant Professor of Economics at University of California at Santa Barbara, Ms. Rossin-Slater explained that paid leave “reduces disparities in leave-taking between low and high socioeconomic groups, and does so without damaging…women’s later labor market prospects” (qtd. in Miller, Economic Benefits). Women who fall into low socioeconomic groups often work for companies who do not offer pay for maternity leave, with the result that they cannot afford to take off work. Their additional need for public assistance then creates a burden on tax payers, making Ernst and Lee’s Cradle Act moot. If their legislation is predicated on the concern of the economy suffering following the birth of a child, research shows that it suffers more via increased strain on government assistance when low socioeconomic mothers are forced to return to work too early.

The United States continues to debate parental leave, with little effect, while thirty-nine percent of Millennials cited a lack of paid parental leave as a top reason they have delayed or stopped having children (Miller, Americans Having Babies). As women delay childbearing, concern continues to grow as there are more risks with having children later in life. According to the Mayo Clinic, women who have children after the age of 35 may have issues getting pregnant or losing a pregnancy, in addition to the potential for “chromosome abnormalities” and gestational diabetes. In Japan, economic factors have played a role in a dramatic decrease in the number of babies being born at all, which has ultimately led to an historically low population (Ingber).

A major factor may be a dearth of stable jobs for young people. Since the 1990s, labor laws changed, leading to more part-time and contract work...That could have affected people's trajectory, building ‘a class of men who don't marry and have children because they — and their potential partners — know they can't afford to’ (qtd. in Ingber).

The Communications and Cultural Affairs Minister, Takehiro Shimada is concerned about the economic impact: “[t]o help ensure Japan stays on a path of sustained economic growth, we know we must address the birthrate and aging population issues” (qtd. in Ingber).

The United States is starting towards a similar trend. In 2018, the CDC released a report that the birthrate was the lowest it had been in 32 years (Hamilton, et al 1). Job security is one of the main factors that Millennials are not having children: “[f]rom January 2009 to December 2017, 36.6 million American jobs were lost. That's more jobs than were lost during the Great Recession” (qtd. in Chappell). With little hope for a stable job, many do not want to have children as the average cost to raise a child to 18 in the U.S. is $230,000 (qtd. in Hoffower, U.S. Birthrate). In fact, the number of people who say that finances played a factor in whether or not they had children has gone up 40% since 1970 (qtd. in Hoffower, U.S. Birthrate).

Millennials are also concerned over the exorbitant student loan debt they face as well as the struggles from the fallout of the recession and the increase in housing costs despite stagnant wages (qtd. in Hoffower, U.S. Birthrate). With such concern over finances, it is easy to see how those in prime childbearing age would relish paid parental leave and take such opportunities into account in favor of having children. According to a 2019 Charles Schwab survey, almost 60% of Millennials say they are living paycheck to paycheck. With two-thirds of the childbearing population unable to save, it is impossible to consider that either parent could remain at home for the recommended 16 weeks following the birth of a child.

Overall, the fact remains that there are only three first-world countries without any sort of guarantee for paid parental leave, and the United States, long known as one of the leaders of the free world, is one of those countries. The inequity associated with parental leave is staggering. The lack of leave endangers both the health and wellbeing of child and mother in addition to hindering the bonding between father and child, which ultimately impedes the development of the newborn.

Despite concerns from opponents that such a policy would harm employers and thus the economy, data from California and European countries show otherwise. The economic benefits would outweigh drawbacks with women returning to work sooner and additional women coming into the workforce. These same benefits could also decrease the number of women who need to participate in social programs, such as Food Stamps, thus further assisting the economy, rather than harming the economy.

As the U.S. continues to see a decline in birthrate, employers will suffer as the numbers of skilled workers within the workforce will also decline. The lack of parental leave is one which affects all of American society as the lasting effects from poor early infant development and potential health complications of postpartum women can cause a chain reaction impacting company staffing and family structures. It is thus essential that the United States enact a law stipulating that employers must provide paid parental leave of at least 16 weeks per the World Health Organization’s recommendation.

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