Family Leave in the United States
There is a refrain that we hear a lot in the media pieces on Millennials: why aren’t they having babies? There was some panic this year when our birth rate dropped, and sociologists and economists often point out that we are only at a replacement rate (one birth for one death) in the U.S. because of immigration. We get a clear picture from the data. We aren’t reproducing as fast as we used to. The media has devoted some time to this, but they never seem to land on one answer. As ever, the answer has so many variables, but we can point to one that is critical: family leave.
Every term, I mention to my classes that the United States is the only core nation on the planet that doesn’t have paid family leave. There is usually some shock. A little dismay. The occasional, “Really? No way.”. Look it up, I usually tell them. As they get their Google machines running, they find that it’s true.
In fact, it’s worse than that. There are only 6 countries in the world that don’t offer paid leave. That’s right. Almost every single country on Earth offers leave; there are just 6 that don’t. And we are a member of that exclusive club. Even our flimsy Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only covers about 60% of our workers and is unpaid. Only about 20% of workers have any type of paid leave.
We’ve been trying to remedy that situation for a very long time. Americans widely support the idea of paid maternity leave, and a majority of them support paternity leave. A few years ago, there were several bipartisan bills that provided parental leave, but they stalled in one of the two Congressional chambers. Some of the states have a patchwork of policies, but nothing major has been done federally. Why?
The answer, as always, is complicated. The United States is often an outlier among the core nations because we have a very complex mix of individualism and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” self-determination. We don’t like to give anything close to a handout, and we often chide and punish those that look for one because it’s considered their fault that they are poor.
We also devalue women and the work they do. As we often hear, other countries have universal pre-k and paid family leave. The United States has mothers. We rely on this group for so much, and, yet, we punish them for having children. We panic when our birth rate drops, but we don’t ever seem to do the hard work of addressing the fact that having a child is very, very difficult. And that difficulty increases when you don’t have access to affordable housing, decent wages, and health insurance. These are the other sticky wickets in the story.
There’s also the challenge of paying for family leave. It’s expensive. Somehow, every other country save for six has figured it out, but the United States continues to be the outlier. As we’ve seen throughout our history, the government has often been on the side of management and owners; they often say it’s hard to imagine trying to pay for family leave, and so it gets tossed aside. If we try to subsidize the program with higher taxes, the same group complains, and the same result happens.
So, that brings us to today. Women have suffered more labor and skills loss during the pandemic than men have; they have been the primary caregivers for children that had pauses or even stops in their schooling. Many of those losses have not been recouped. We drone on about not having enough workers while ignoring that a huge segment of the population simply cannot return to work yet. Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan had family leave in it; it was an important and integral part of the sweeping social bill. However, several of the senators wanted it cut, and so it looks likely that it will face the chopping block yet again.
Until we can get a handle on leave, the United States will face pressure related to birth rates. A population that cannot replace itself is in for a world of hurt later; demographers have been sounding the alarms, but it can be difficult to hear them when the effects are not felt immediately. The question is: when will we finally do it? And will it be too late by then?