Remaking the American Family

By Gabrielle Pesantez


25 percent of American mothers return to work just 10 days after childbirth, left without any formalized national paid leave policy to ensure their professional security and optionality during formative caregiving months. Currently, only 17 percent of U.S. private-sector employees have had access to paid family leave arrangements through their employers, though coverage has traditionally been biased toward higher-income workers. In 2017, among workers without access to paid leave, 35.8 percent elected to remain at work because they could not afford to leave without pay. For these 35.8 percent of workers without access to paid leave, hour reductions, involuntary promotional rejections, and unplanned early retirement ensued. Thus far, the U.S. has only been successful in promising its workers job-protected unpaid leave for a minimum of 12 weeks under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. Yet, this Act applies to less than two-thirds of the workforce due to its restrictive eligibility requirements. Additional legislation deliberated in 2019 sought to extend at least 12 weeks of paid leave to federal workers following the birth or adoption of a child. However, federal workers comprise only 6 percent of employed workers in America, and the legislation still would have abandoned approximately 40 percent of the federal workforce due to the policy’s exemptions for smaller workplaces. Despite the immense popularity of paid leave systems among U.S. voters—with 84 percent surveyed in 2018 supporting the adoption of national paid leave—the U.S. has yet to act. Our inaction is especially puzzling given that such national policies are supported by roughly 94, 83, and 74 percent of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans, respectively.


Taking matters into their own hands, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and the District of Columbia have all either enacted or plan to enact paid family/medical leave. Hawaii also currently provides an alternative form of paid medical leave through its temporary disability insurance. Still, the nation’s failure to back the adoption of paid leave is an anomaly amongst our peer countries. The U.S. is alone among its peers in its failure to establish a national paid family leave system: no other high-income or O.E.C.D.-member countries have yet to enact national paid family leave. A 2019 report from UNICEF found that 40 of the world’s 41 richest countries (with the U.S. being the only outlier) offered paid leave for new mothers. 26 of those countries also offered paid paternity leave to new fathers. Japan, South Korea, and Portugal lead in generosity for their paid paternity leave systems, offering new fathers 30.4, 17.2, and 12.5 paid weeks off from work, respectively. In these countries, over one-third of paid leave time is taken by new fathers, as opposed to new mothers.


In a world where professional priorities are often an extension of gendered household dynamics, it is unsurprising that female workers everywhere use paid leave systems much more than their male counterparts. With childcare burdens left mostly on mothers, fathers’ professional lives are prioritized as opposite-sex parents weigh the costs and benefits of each partner taking time off. Studies have found it unlikely that paternity leave has a causal impact on labor outcomes for fathers. However, a study of European countries found that a one-year paid maternity leave provision could heighten mothers’ employment after childbirth while having positive or no effects on their wages. Overall, research on paid leave expansion indicates that adopting a generous paid leave policy in the U.S. would increase women’s labor force participation, along with their access to professional promotion and growth opportunities. A 2016 Center for American Progress study conducted on the Californian paid leave system found a 14 percent increase in labor force participation overall, with greater work-life balance leading to the expansion. Developing a national paid leave policy could also increase worker retention following childbirth, improve employee morale, improve family incomes, and reduce productivity losses that employers face when they need to train new long-term workers. Further, research suggests that paid leave could exert a net benefit for the wider economy: in generating greater labor force participation, we would also generate a larger tax base and see increases in consumption as new laborers expend their incomes.


Mothers would be most set to benefit from a national paid maternity leave system. Researchers Lawrence Berger and Jane Waldfogel, using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from 1988 to 1996, have concluded that women with access to leave during this period were 40 percent more likely to work both prior to the birth of their child and after their leave period than women without access to leave. Additionally, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research suggests that sufficient periods of leave can prevent maternal depression and stress and even drive lower mortality rates for infants and young children.


Enacting a formalized, national paid leave system would also offer a net benefit to employers. Paid leave policies have been found to aid businesses in hiring and maintaining a talented workforce. Among a pool of 200 surveyed human resource managers, approximately two-thirds expressed that employee recruitment and retention relies heavily on the observation of family-supportive policies, including schedule flexibility and leave. One California study found that mothers of infants who returned to their workplace after paid maternity leave displayed increased productivity, working an average of 3.5 to 6 additional hours a week. Further, these benefits come with negligible costs to employers, with research on existing paid leave programs suggesting that paid leave leads to little costs to employers in securing temporary employee replacements.


However, these benefits do come at a cost. Paid parental leave is often more financially beneficial for a mother to take than a father, so mothers are more likely to take leave and remain separated from the labor market. Economic research as far back as 1998 has shown that leave periods of over one year, while contributing to an increase in women’s employment, could also lead to wage reductions. This is why, in developing effective paid leave systems, it is essential to provide and encourage an even distribution of leave days between opposite-sex parents.


Paid paternity leave, like maternity leave, also offers greater employee retention, while conferring other social benefits such as increased partner support and a breakdown of detrimental gendered dynamics in affected households. The difficulty lies in creating economic incentives for the equal uptake of leave between two parents. In Japan, both working parents are provided a generous 12 months of paid parental leave, yet few fathers take up their allotted leave days. In Sweden, another nation known for its generosity in the provision of equal maternity and paternity leave days, less than 30 percent of fathers choose to use their leave days.


In order to organize an effective national paid leave system that is adaptable to the gender divisions that often influence uptake, any leave systems implemented in the U.S. must mandate that leave days across parents be non-transferable, decreasing the chances that fathers will simply toss their allotted leave days onto mothers. Only then can paid leave programs work to simultaneously eliminate gender inequality. In order to encourage such a policy without financially harming vulnerable households, paid leave compensation for low-income earners should match 100 percent of their typical income, a requisite that would make taking leave a fruitful option for new parents. Through approaching the development of a potential U.S. paid leave system under a gendered and socioeconomic framework, we may pursue a policy that aids new parents from every corner of society in engaging in childcare responsibilities, while also maintaining their job security.


Right now, prospects for the adoption of paid parental leave in the U.S. are promising: President Joe Biden has recently announced his American Family Plan, a $4 trillion initiative for economic reform. President Biden has emphasized the prioritization of “human infrastructure,” promising to dedicate funds to pave the way for universal pre-kindergarten, greater childcare subsidies, free community college education, along with a national paid leave program for America’s workers. With the American Family Plan underway, the Biden administration will have to evaluate various paid leave program structures. If they ensure that their plans reflect a commitment to eradicating gender divisions in labor and in the household, this plan may very well succeed in integrating more women into active roles in American economic life.

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