The first objection to a national paid family leave policy in the US is usually about cost. Who would pay for it? Why should the employer pay a worker who isn’t there? Given that such a program would, among other things, allow new parents time to care for their children, is it fair to workers without children, who would never use that benefit? If the money is to come from public funds, why should one taxpayer pay for another to deal with bringing home a baby or a newly adopted child? While the questions posed are worthy of serious thought, they are not insurmountable obstacles. In fact, every other modern country has resolved them in one way or another. The bigger question is what we are paying right now for NOT having a paid leave policy available to new parents. A recent analysis of over 150 studies on the impact of family leave on newborns, Newborn Family Leave: Effects on Children, Parents, and Business, documents what it takes to make a difference in the lives of babies and their families.
Young children whose parents have sufficient job-protected paid leave enjoy better health than children whose parents do not. They are less likely to suffer a life-threatening illness or accident. They are more likely to receive the necessary immunizations and receive the considerable benefits of being breastfed. They display better physical and mental development, and are more likely to receive care from their fathers, both upon arrival and throughout their childhood. Longer paid leaves for the mother have been shown to decrease the frequency and extent of depression and anxiety. However, to accomplish all these goals, the parental leave must provide some income, and guarantee a job to return to.
A rational person might think that with so much hanging in the balance, we’d see to it that our own children had the benefit of a common policy proven to do so much good. We do want our children to be as healthy as possible, be protected against common diseases, and get their checkups, especially in that first critical year. We do want mothers to be able to breastfeed, because it is great for both mother and child in numerous, important ways. Having a baby brings overwhelming challenges – putting the family’s economic stability at risk ought not to be one of them. Women without paid leave tend to quit their jobs, then attempt to re-enter the workforce later, undercutting their earning power and losing ground. Mothers with paid leave of 8 weeks or more are more likely to return to their employer, preserving their connection to the paid labor force, protecting their earning potential, and continuing to provide for their families. Needless to say, the employer avoids the expense of re-training and re-staffing that accompany constant turnover.
We will all eventually be dependent on today’s children. They will be our teachers, doctors, grocers, farmers, and scientists. They will build our houses, design our public spaces, vote for our leaders, run our police departments, and raise our grandchildren. If we want the best for them, then we need to put a common sense policy in place to make it happen. We are already paying a price, in our own and our children’s poor health, lost opportunity, sub-optimal child development, and unearned wages, that can never be recovered.
The question isn’t how much will paid parental leave cost.
The question really is why are we willing to continue to pay such a high price for not having it?