Written by Cecilia Rogers, Natalie Ito, and Emilie Yang
Even while being one of the wealthiest nations in the world, the United States is one of seven countries without national paid maternity leave. This is despite the fact that research has found many health and economic benefits of having paid parental leave, all of which could help curb socioeconomic and racial inequalities in America.
The Health Benefits
Health advantages, such as lower infant mortality and increased breastfeeding rates, can be seen in countries with paid maternity leave. Parental lifespans and postpartum mental health are seen to increase as well. In 2017, the US maternal mortality rate was 19 deaths per 100,000 births. While it’s easy to assume that the healthcare system is entirely to blame, four out of five maternal deaths occur before and after giving birth. With a wave of added responsibilities, parents have to fight to balance physiological, psychological, and economic struggles. Sweden, a country with 480 days of paid parental leave, had a maternal mortality rate of 5 deaths per 100,000 births in 2017. When given economic support, parents have the ability to take care of themselves and the newborn. When people have access to paid leave, the health of both the baby and the parents improve as they are given time to adjust without having to worry about financial burdens.
Paid parental leave that supports all parents involved is essential to seeing these benefits come to fruition. In Sweden, after fathers were allowed to have thirty days of paid leave up to a year after birth, anti-anxiety medication prescriptions for mothers dropped 26%. And while a father’s ability to leave work on a flexible schedule helps alleviate the stresses of motherhood, it also establishes healthy parental social norms. Paternity paid leave enforces equal responsibilities between the mother and the father in helping raise the baby. The longer the father leaves work, the more likely they are to share household chores in the long term. The same can be said for same-sex couples, parents who adopt, and close relatives. When there is more than one person helping to raise a child, the health of both the baby and the caregivers improve and responsibilities are shared more equally.
Social norms aren’t the only thing at stake. 93% of the bottom quarter of wage earners don’t have access to paid leave. The top 40% of wage earners are 2.5 times more likely to have paid leave than the bottom 40%. Currently, the U.S. has a Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA), which gives 12 weeks of paid parental leave for federal employees. However, it still leaves out millions of parents, especially those earning lower wages. In addition, only around 16% of private sector workers qualify for paid parental leave. This creates an enormous discrepancy in guaranteed paid parental leave across federal, private sector, and minimum wage workers. In a country of high economic inequality, the disparities in parental support widen the gap between the rich and the poor. But that is not the only disparity — there are racial inequalities as well. In 2019, Black Americans had a maternal mortality rate of 44 deaths per 100,000 births, more than twice the national average. Furthermore, low-income Black families exist at the intersection of economic and racial discrimination. These overlapping oppressions increase stress on the pregnant person, which can increase the likelihood of premature birth and low birth weight, and thus increases the risk of maternal and infant death.
In an interview with Health Righters, Dr. Jessica Scheld, an economics professor at the University of Virginia and University of Lynchburg, mentioned an interesting point that paid leave is often not offered after a miscarriage. This prevents people who have experienced pregnancy loss from having sufficient time to recover physically and emotionally.
The Economics of Paid Leave
This brings us to a discussion of the economic side of paid parental leave. It is suggested that three to six months is the best length, but there is a lot of concern surrounding the funding and logistics of requiring a paid parental leave system. Dr. Scheld provides insight into how the United States can tackle these issues. In regards to funding, Dr. Scheld suggests that a national paid parental leave program could mirror that of unemployment insurance. “At each job you have, you pay a certain [percent] of your income to a family leave program.” In terms of who receives this funding, eligibility requirements should be limited in order to promote equitable access to parental leave. As an alternative to eligibility requirements, Dr. Scheld brings up the possibility that people can “agree to work for the company for a certain amount of time after leave, if it occurs within the first year.” Dr. Scheld also gives a possible framework for how much of usual earnings should be covered by parental leave: “100% for a certain amount of time (6-8 weeks) but have a declining percent of income for parents who want to take longer leave.”
As with welfare, paid parental leave faces similar scrutiny for disincentivizing parents to re-enter the workforce. One of Dr. Scheld’s suggestions is longer parental leave. If paid time off is too short, it pushes parents out of the workforce because parents will prioritize taking care of their children over returning to work too soon. Another option is universal childcare or better pay to offset childcare, which would alleviate a major financial burden on new parents. This factor is especially important for low income earners who may not earn enough to afford childcare; these parents may be more inclined to leave the workforce to avoid this extra expense. Other incentives include lactation and postpartum support, which provide employees with a comfortable work environment to take care of their needs as new parents.
Implementation in Other Countries
Promising statistics from other countries demonstrate how a national paid parental leave program is a reasonable goal. For example, India gives up to 26 weeks of 100% paid leave. Germany has a program which supports up to three years of parental leave with only one year of 60% pay. In Sweden, both parents are given paid leave until the child is 18 months old, and 16 months of that time period is paid. However, the United States capitalist economy, which tends to equate increasing work hours to increasing output and productivity, presents a challenge to implementing a similar system in the US. As a result of this economic system, policies promoting time off naturally receive opposition from firms which have strong lobbying power. But there is hope for an argument against this ideology in studies which have shown that people who take paid family leave increase their work hours 10 to 17 percent one to three years later. Furthermore, in the UK, one study showed that firms with paid parental leave were 60% more likely to report above average financial performance. This research counters the belief that paid leave would decrease productivity, and it demonstrates how a physically and mentally healthier workforce correlates with increased job performance and productivity.
So, in order to achieve national paid parental leave, the US must recognize that there are both economic and social benefits which would promote greater equity and a higher living standard for all Americans. Similar programs have demonstrated how the economy could benefit from increased productivity and higher workforce participation rates with a national paid parental leave program. From a social justice standpoint, this policy is necessary to provide support for young parents and to ensure the health of the parents and child. A national program would also combat racial and economic disparities in child and parent health caused by social inequities.
Edited by Sydney Henderson