When I gave birth to my daughter over a year ago, I worked for an employer that provides no paid parental leave: the U.S. government. I was able to cobble together vacation and sick time with unpaid leave for four months. But I did not feel ready to go back to work, physically or emotionally, until my daughter was closer to seven months old — when she was sitting up, investigating new toys, eating pureed solids, and getting ready to scoot around her daycare room.
It is time for the U.S. to join the rest of the developed world in providing paid parental leave. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are finally starting to recognize that the current system places American parents in an impossible position. None of them would provide what I think is adequate: six months of paid leave per parent. (Six months is the recommendation of the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics as well.) But one proposal — the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, a bill introduced last February whose primary sponsor was Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York — would be a major step forward.
It would create a new office within the Social Security Administration to run a paid leave program funded by a new payroll tax. It would cover all family-related caregiving for up to 12 weeks, so almost all workers contributing to the program could eventually benefit from it. Today, more than 43 million Americans provide unpaid caregiving for elderly parents, ill spouses, new children, and other loved ones — often to the detriment of their household finances.
There are other legislative options on the table as well. A tax credit for employers offering at least two weeks paid family leave, first introduced by Senator Deb Fischer, Republican of Nebraska, was included in last year’s tax reform effort. But two weeks does not even cover the typical physical recovery time of labor and delivery, let alone the mental and emotional stress of caring for a weeks-old newborn. And because this is a “carrot approach,” as the senator describes it, and not a program that all families can rely on, the proposal does not go far enough.
Nor does the legislation introduced on August 2 by Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida. Drawing from a policy developed by the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), a think tank, the bill would allow only new parents to draw benefits early from the Social Security program and defer their retirement benefits accordingly. The proposal does not address other types of family-related caregiving.
The plan’s proponents say that their program would be budget-neutral and voluntary, giving individuals the choice to participate without placing additional burden on employers and those without children. They say it would offer an option to many families who currently lack one, wouldn’t force anybody to pay a tax, wouldn’t cause additional government bloat, and wouldn’t impose a regulatory mandate on employers. They say if a worker’s retirement is deferred — possibly by a couple years if a family has multiple children — it’s a trade-off the individual and her family will have to make.
But they are missing the point. When working parents lack support, our economy and society both suffer the consequences. We Americans all carry this burden, whether we have children or not. We should not be asking people to compromise their financial security later in life in order to take care of their children today.
Borrowing against your future retirement benefits is not a good financial deal for anyone, but it particularly hurts the working poor. “It’s a pretty small loan of effectively a few thousand bucks, and you’re paying interest on it for potentially 40 or more years,” according to Melissa Favreault, an Urban Institute researcher who has done financial modeling of the Social Security proposal.
What kind of person is going to take that option? “Somebody who’s desperate,” Favreault told me. “Somebody who doesn’t have any savings, who doesn’t have a wealthy family or a wealthy spouse. The person who is going to take this is a person who does not have many alternatives.” By placing the responsibility on the individual parent to borrow against their Social Security benefit for near-term financial support, we are telling new parents they are on their own.
Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester, points out that policies set cultural norms. “We’re saying it’s your fault, and you have to pay for the choice you make to be a working person and also have a child,” she told me. “But whether or not you have children, you were once a child, and you benefited from your parents who brought you up and the economy that you lived in.”
We are losing the full economic potential of much of the population because our country still hasn’t figured out how to support working families. This hurts women the most because women bear the brunt of family caregiving. But this has has a wider impact as well. Researchers have found that paid family leave increases the number of hours that new mothers work. When more women stay at work through their childbearing years, wages rise across the board, household income grows, and the GDP is likely to increase. One recent study found that if the American female workforce participation had grown at the same pace as other developed countries like Norway, our economy would be $1.6 trillion larger. Equitable family leave policies that encourage male participation in caregiving can address this problem. We can’t afford to get this wrong.
This is an opportunity to do what is right for our families, including those who are most vulnerable: our babies, our elderly, our sick or disabled family members and neighbors. It is time for the U.S. to decide whether it values families as a collective. If so, lawmakers must create policies that reflect those values.