Many people don’t consider the impact of parental leave options until they are in the position of needing to take time off to have a baby. This is not an area where the United States has excelled as one of only two countries in the world that do not guarantee paid time off according to the International Labor Organization. However, it appears that we may be on the brink of a new social norm. For the first time in an American presidential race, candidates are debating the possibility of implementing national paid parental leave policies. The arguments for and against paid parental leave fall squarely along partisan lines with Democrats putting forward a plan that supports 12-weeks paid leave following the birth of a child but Republicans largely arguing that mandating parental leave payments would place undue hardship on small businesses.
Currently, Federal parental leave requirements are outlined by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993. Under FMLA, companies with 50 or more employees must provide 12-weeks of family leave when a new baby arrives. This leave, however, does not have to be paid and companies are only required to hold the new mom’s job for the 12-week period. The inadequacy of coverage provided under FMLA becomes even more apparent when you consider statistics by the U.S. Census Bureau, which state that 97.9% of all American businesses have 20 or fewer employees. This means that the vast majority of American businesses have no requirement to ensure that their employees even get time off when they have a child, let alone provide paid time off. This would cover a significant number of low-income families who can scant afford to lose income for any period of time.
Objectively, there is a body of evidence outlining the benefits of paid parental leave. There are clear health benefits to the baby, with studies demonstrating that parents with paid leave are more likely to vaccinate their infants and to breast-feed longer, which reduces infant rates of asthma, obesity and some infections. Infants with parents who have paid-leave also have lower rates of mortality and generally better health than infants whose parents do not. Longer-term, studies have found that infants whose parents had paid leave, ended up achieving higher IQs, and higher levels of education than infants whose parents did not have access to paid leave. There are also mental and physical health benefits of paid leave to parents. Moms who are able to breast-feed longer have lower levels of breast and ovarian cancer, heart disease and lower rates of both short-term and long-term depression. Fathers who are given paid leave have better father-child relationships and increased involvement in parenting long-term.
Economically, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that a significant portion of mothers who do not receive at least partial pay when they have a child, have to turn to public assistance to make ends meet and companies with more generous leave policies have significantly higher rates of new-mother retention than companies that do not. Extending parental leave to fathers, further improves family economic outcomes by increasing the mother’s overall income.
Parental leave has clear benefits, and has been very successful in States where policies have been implemented. For those who choose to have children, paid leave should not be considered a benefit that is only available to those who already have well-paid positions in ‘generous’ companies, but should be seen as a social good and an entitlement that could help in closing the health and education gaps between the rich and the poor.