The United States is the only developed country in the world to not guarantee paid maternity or paternity leave. This creates a complicated situation for many parents as they struggle to balance spending time with their children and returning to work. Paid family leave has many documented social benefits, but it’s time to consider the economic case for paid family leave as well.
A study found that mothers who took longer maternity leave had better physical and mental health. In turn, their children saw a slightly reduced chance of infant death and better attachment to their parents. Parents and infants benefit from staying at home, but many American parents are unable to reap these benefits.
Although the Family and Medical Leave act guarantees eligible workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, very few workers actually make use of it. A UCSF study found that only 62% of employees who made less than $30,000 did not receive any paid leave compared to 26% of employees who earned more than $75,000. Educated parents are more likely than lower income parents to take leave because they can afford the financial burden of unpaid leave. This creates inequality between parents of different socioeconomic backgrounds, which has troubling consequences for both parents and children.
Despite the social benefits of paid family leave, businesses and politicians raise concerns about the economic impact of this policy. To address these issues, economists have turned to Sweden’s paid family leave program as a model for its consequences in the United States. Currently, Sweden’s program mandates up to 480 days of paid parental leave at 80% pay and requires both fathers and mothers to take parental leave. Reports from Sweden’s labor department found that this policy increased the number of women in the workforce, which improves the economy. Paid parental leave facilitates smoother integration back into the labor market, which reduces employee turnover in businesses.
Many businesses are beginning to see the value of paid parental leave. A study conducted by the Columbia Business School found that support for paid family leave among small businesses has increased before and after the pandemic. Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, the share of businesses stating they were supportive of paid parental leave rose from 61.6% to 70.7% and the share of businesses against paid parental leave dropped 9.6% from 20.0% to 10.4%. The pandemic has exacerbated many inequalities, especially among women and people of color, but paid parental leave could be a step towards promoting equality in the workplace.
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Bangs, Molly. “The Facts Behind Why Americans Need Nationwide Paid Family Leave.” The Century Foundation, 11 May 2016, https://tcf.org/content/facts/facts-behind-americans-need-nationwide-paid-family-leave/?agreed=1.