Exclusive Commentary

Strengthening 21st Century Families: The Case for Paid Family Leave

Susan Ochshorn, ECEPolicyWorks and Curtis Skinner, National Center for Children in Poverty - Posted February 19, 2013


As 2012 wound down, in the shadow of the fiscal cliff, The Atlantic posted a promising prediction: “Paid Leave Could Pass in Obama’s Second Term: Americans Want It.” The inspiration was a poll released by the National Partnership for Women and Families, which found that 86 percent of voters nationwide declared it important for Congress and the president to consider new laws such as paid sick days and paid family and medical leave insurance to help keep families financially secure.

Despite this popular support, the United States remains the only advanced industrialized nation without a federally mandated family leave policy, standing with Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland in its failure to offer legal protection to those who need time off to take care of a new baby or attend to other important family needs. And although New Jersey and California have successfully implemented legislation, and New York is about to try again, paid family leave is barely on the policy agenda of most states.  The growing imbalance between work and family time undermines family well being across the spectrum of economic security, maternal health, child health and development, and strong relationships.

In most U.S. households, all adults are in the workforce, two-thirds of dual-earner couples work a combined total of more than 80 hours a week, and nearly 60 percent of women with children under the age of three work outside the home. These demographics starkly highlight the juggling act of contemporary parents, in which job demands increasingly compete with children’s need for care. 

This conflict is especially acute for low-income parents, whose jobs offer few family-support benefits. In 2011, just five percent of private sector workers earning in the lowest quartile of wages reported access to employer-sponsored paid family leave. The highest ten percent of wage earners are six times more likely to have access to paid family leave than the lowest ten percent of wage earners. 

In a nation where a staggering 44 percent of children live in low-income families and more than one child in five lives in poverty, the repercussions for family well being and workforce productivity are serious and demand our attention.

Paid family leave, paid sick days, and paid medical leave offer a number of tangible benefits for low-income families. These policies strengthen families economically by boosting earnings, employment, and job security.  Taking unpaid leave provided for by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is not a viable option for low-income workers. Nearly one out of every ten workers who took unpaid leave provided through the FMLA was forced to seek public assistance to keep afloat.

Paid leave is also good for children—the future U.S. workforce. Studies reveal a host of positive effects on child health and cognitive development as well as parental relationships. The amount of time that mothers can breastfeed increases, lessening the risk of ear infections, eczema, asthma, obesity, and other illnesses. In infancy, rich interactions with mothers, fathers, or other close caregivers propel growth, building a foundation for social, emotional, and intellectual development, school readiness, and, ultimately, better academic and life outcomes.

California and New Jersey, which fund their programs by modest increases in employee payroll taxes, offer valuable evidence of effectiveness in strengthening family economic security and increasing gender equity for caregivers. A recent study of California’s program showed that paid family leave generated cost savings due to reduced turnover, and the vast majority of employers reported a positive or neutral effect on performance and profitability. Another study showed that nearly 84 percent of workers in “low-quality” jobs – those with low wages and without benefits – who took advantage of the state’s program received at least half of their usual pay, compared to only 31 percent of those who took family leave without the benefits of the new law. These workers were also more successful in retaining their jobs than leave-takers who did not use the state program. 

Other research documents increases in working hours and income among mothers who have benefitted from the California law. Extended leaves are also associated with somewhat higher employment rates for women. Finally, the number of fathers taking leave to bond with their infants has steadily increased, and fathers are also taking longer leaves. 

So, too, are New Jersey families reaping the benefits of paid family leave. A recent study found that women who took advantage of the state’s program are more likely to be employed 9 to 12 months after a child’s birth. Women with leaves of 30 days or longer are also much more likely to report wage increases in the year following birth. 

It is high time that the rest of the nation joined these pioneers. A small investment in family leave insurance promises significant returns – ensuring a vital future for the nation – right from the start. 

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Susan Ochshorn is the founder of ECEPolicy Works.

Curtis Skinner is the director of Family Economic Security at the National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at info@spotlightonpoverty.org.