Exclusive Commentary

Time for Paid Leave

Joan Lombardi, Early Opportunities, LLC - Posted December 12, 2013


Policymakers are beginning to acknowledge just how important the first weeks and months of a child’s life are to laying the foundation for future success. Though the U.S. ranked near the bottom of a list of developed nations in a recent UNICEF study that measured overall child well-being, national and state leaders are developing promising proposals to improve child outcomes, starting with our youngest children.

In the precious first weeks of life, ensuring that parents have the time and resources they need to nurture and care for their babies is vital for children’s immediate and long-term health and success. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 was an important start, but it provides only unpaid leave; further, its eligibility rules exclude about 40 percent of workers from accessing even unpaid time to be with a new child (or to care for a child or other family member or address a serious illness).  

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro have introduced legislation that would take an important step forward for families, businesses, and our economy. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act of 2013 (FAMILY Act) would create a national paid family and medical leave insurance program, enabling workers to take up to 12 partially paid weeks away from work to recover from serious illness, attend to a sick family member, or bond with and care for a new child.

If the necessity of such a law is unclear, consider that up to a quarter of new moms take fewer than ten days of maternity leave. Ten days is surely not enough as parent and child are establishing bonds that will have lifelong implications. But only 11 percent of workers have access to paid family leave, and fewer than 40 percent have access to personal medical leave through employer-provided disability plans. Of those who are eligible, many are unable to make ends meet with unpaid leave, so it’s not surprising that mothers are returning to work soon after the arrival of a new baby. As a record 40 percent of American households with children have a woman as the sole or primary source of income, it’s even more important that our policies reflect social reality.

Family leave policies are crucial because babies learn and develop through relationships with caring adults. Those early relationships with parents – children’s first teachers – shape the very architecture of the brain and set the stage for children’s lifelong well-being. Public policy makes a difference here: researchers have found that strong family policies, including paid parental leave, have a significant impact on improving children’s well-being. In California, one of three states that have paid family leave insurance programs, more than 9 in 10 workers who used the paid leave program reported a positive effect on their ability to care for the new child. Paid leave in California doubled the median duration of breastfeeding – which is associated with improved outcomes for children, including reduced risk of obesity – among new mothers.

The research makes clear what we know intuitively: in those first months of life, children need loving care from their parents. Many new parents, especially lower-wage working parents, are forced to choose between bringing home a paycheck and taking time to nurture and care for their new baby. The fact that such a “choice” exists in a country of such extraordinary wealth makes little sense. The FAMILY Act will help ensure that no parent juggling work and family demands has to leave a weeks-old baby to ensure that the rent gets paid.

The FAMILY Act is also a great opportunity for businesses to commit to supporting working families. Paid parental leave is not just good for children’s development—it also makes good business sense. Business leaders are already taking notice of the high returns that come from investments in early learning. While some businesses are catching on, many more need to realize the importance of giving workers paid time away from work to care for their new babies. Paid family leave is an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to ensuring that children get the right start—it is part of an investment in our economic future.

In the earliest days of life, children’s vulnerability could not be more apparent: those babies rely on their parents and caregivers for every facet of their existence. But they are also relying on all of us to ensure that they can grow up in a society that values children and families. To make sure that such a society will exist for the next generation, we must start now. The FAMILY Act takes a needed step in the right direction to ensure we make the kinds of early investments our children, families, and country need to prosper.  

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Joan Lombardi is the director of Early Opportunities, LLC, and served as first Deputy Assistant Secretary and Interagency Liaison for Early Childhood Development at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2009 to 2011.


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