Raising or Razing the American Family? Reforming Parental Leave

Family leave policies in the workplace have traditionally focused on women, reflecting traditional American cultural values that assign a dominant role for mothers in the child rearing process. Recent research shows that this framework neglects the role fathers can play. Parents learn the “maternal instinct” through caring for a child in the initial stages of development. As with any other job, parenting skills are acquired through experience. As policy makers seek to reform parental leave policies, it is important to consider the important role both parents play in raising families.

Advocates point to the need for better policies because accessibility to parental leave supports families, parent-child bonding, and job security for parents. The costs of inadequate parental leave policies affect more than just business but also the development of pro-social and productive American citizens.

In February 1993, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law, enacting the only federal legislation that addresses the demands of work and family. The FMLA stipulates a universal standard of a twelve week, unpaid leave for all businesses employing more than 50 employees within a 75 mile radius of the workplace. This leave can be used after the birth or adoption of a new child or to care for a family member or one’s self suffering from a serious health condition. If a more comprehensive leave policy is already in place, an example being paid leave for up to twelve weeks, then the business does not have to revert to the unpaid leave set by the FMLA. The act merely provides a minimum a business must adhere to.

The passage of the FMLA in 1993 marked a historic event for working fathers and mothers and set a precedent for progress in the area of family leave. But the fact remains that the original intent of the FMLA has yet to be brought to fruition for most families. As noted by Emily Hayes in the William and Mary Law Review, “The FMLA reaches its original goals of family and job security only for those families who can afford to lose at least one income for a three-month period.” And according to a 2009 report released by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, child care costs in the states range from between $5000 and over $10000 for the full-time care of an infant. The trend, easily predicted from the gender wage gap, is that mothers take leave more often than fathers. As of 2008, a woman makes $0.77 for every dollar a man earns annually. Given the high cost of child care and the discrepancy in the amount a woman makes in comparison to a man, most families can afford to lose the mother’s wages over the father’s.

Critics will point to the increased costs small businesses would face with the implementation of a paid-leave program. At a glance, requiring small businesses to grant paid leave seems like a fiscal recipe for disaster. However, a cost study performed by the Department of Labor to investigate an expansive parental leave policy found “It was much more cost-effective to evolve a well-planned parental leave policy than to lose the worker concerned and have to replace him or her permanently.”

With the evaluation of parental leave and its viability in the United States, it is important to turn to the place where it has existed for decades, Europe. In particular, Sweden presents the most information with studies on long-term impacts and effects of its comprehensive leave policy. The four major components of Sweden’s policy are “The extensive economic support to families with children, of which the most important ingredient is the child allowance… a comprehensive system of heavily subsidized public child care… parental insurance benefits… [and] a series of employment benefits.” This model has extended beyond the initial parental leave allowance for the birth or adoption of a new child and actually includes provisions to continue to support the needs of families. There can certainly be no doubt about the wealth of knowledge the Swedish example provides. A report by the International Labour Review found that all studies on Sweden “Conclude that there have been significant positive effects of combined parental leave and working-time arrangements on the career patterns of Swedish women.”

Several states, including New Jersey and Washington, have recently taken the initiative to enhance the provisions set out in the FMLA. In 2004, California became the first state to provide a paid leave program with the passage of the Senate Bill 1661. This program applies a partial wage replacement (up to 55% of one’s wages for a maximum of $882 per week) for a maximum of 6 weeks within a 12-month time span. Studies of the California model point toward a large number of families benefiting from the availability of paid leave. Yet, it is clear that there is “A significant need to provide the public with more information about the program” as less than 30 percent of surveyed workers who were even aware of the program’s existence.

With a paid-leave program instituted in California, often a trendsetter throughout the nation’s history, it appears likely the rest of the country will follow suit. The issue of paid-family leave is an issue that both the Democrats and Republicans should be able to find reasons to support. The implications of a solid paid-leave program touch on values from both parties.

The Republican Party promotes the idea of strengthening America through the promotion of family values and strong families. Looking at the effects of viable and beneficial paid leave, such programs contribute to the building and strengthening of families by allowing both mothers and fathers an opportunity for parent-child bonding in the child’s initial years of development. Children whose fathers are actively involved in their lives are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit pro-social behavior, and avoid high-risk behaviors like drug use, truancy, and criminal activity.

The issue of family leave and its ramifications tie directly into the Democratic platform, which prioritizes the strengthening of working families and providing opportunities to all Americans. As it has been determined that working and low-income families cannot afford the leave mandated by the FMLA, current law unintentionally places these classes at a disadvantage. An inequality exists that the Democratic Party would presumably have an interest in addressing.

In the years after the enactment of the FMLA, new legislation has arisen to address inadequacies. The Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, which “Guarantees federal workers with four weeks of full pay while they are on FMLA leave for the birth or adoption of a child,”  was passed by the House in June 2009, and the Obama administration has come out in support of the Act as well. The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee, and no report has been released yet. Other proposed legislation in the House includes the creation of grants for states to develop comprehensive programs as well as expanding the FMLA to 12 weeks of paid leave.

As America experiences the most severe recession since the Great Depression, it seems unlikely that new or updated government-funded programs will receive the needed financial support. Proposals for a paid leave program have explored drawing funding from existing federal programs for disability and unemployment and even going as far to suggest the creation of a new insurance fund. With new or expanded programs, new sources of revenue need to be sought— revenue to sustain and carry America into the next generation.

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“111th Congress Work and Family Agenda” National Partnership for Women and Families. July 2009.

Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993

Hayes, Emily. “Bridging the gap between work and family: accomplishing the goals of the family and medical leave act of 1993.” William and Mary Law Review. April 2001.

Institute for Women’s Policy Research.  http://www.iwpr.org/pdf/C350.pdf.

Palazzari, Kari. “The daddy double-bind: how the family and medical leave act perpetuates sex inequality across all class levels.” Columbia Journal of Gender and the Law. 2007

“Parents and the High Price of Child Care: 2009 Update.” National Association of Child Care Resource and            Referral Agencies. 2009.

“Perspectives: Parental Leave” International Labour Review. 1997 Sherriff, Rona L. “Balancing Work and Family” California Senate Office of Research. February 2007.

Sundstrom, Marianne. “Sweden: Supporting Work, Family, and Gender Equality.” Child Care, Parental Leave, and  the Under 3s. Ed. Sheila B. Kamerman and Alfred J. Kahn. Auburn House. New York. 1991.

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