Of the 193 member states of the United Nations, the United States is one of only eight nations that offers no paid family leave to parents and their newborns. Why doesn’t the U.S. offer paid leave for workers? It certainly isn’t because the nation isn’t wealthy enough to afford leave for parents. Indeed, even poorer nations offer some kind of paid leave for new parents. This lack of paid family leave time is creating a serious public health crisis in the United States, and it is well past time we treat it like one.
It is not unusual for new parents in the US to return to work fewer than six weeks after their baby is born. This painful separation from parents at a time when much of a child’s psyche is beginning to develop leads to an increase in emotional and mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression. The lack of bonding doesn’t only affect the child, but the mother as well. Studies have shown lack of paid family leave greatly increases the risk of postpartum depression in new mothers due to the stress of caring for a newborn while quickly returning to the pressures of full-time work.
And mental health isn’t the only thing that suffers when parents must return to work so soon after giving birth. Studies show mothers who have paid leave are more likely to breastfeed their babies. Breastfeeding imparts a host of immunity-boosting power to the developing baby. Allowing babies to breastfeed for at least the first six months after birth has been shown to lessen infant mortality, as well as a much lower incidence of common infectious diseases in the developing infant.
How Do Other Nations Afford Paid Leave While We Don’t?
The American love affair with smaller government and rampant capitalism forces parents to suffer unnecessarily. In other nations, such as France, for example, paid family leave gets financed through payroll deductions paid by working employees and by their employers. This system creates a general fund, similar to the Social Security safety net in the U.S., new parents can draw from, much like a savings account. And, because both employers and employees pay into a collective pool, there is no unnecessary burden on smaller employers to pay for maternity leave out of their own accounts.
The United Nations recommends all workers should receive a minimum of 14 weeks of paid leave at a rate of approximately two-thirds of the employee’s salary. Many countries go far beyond this. In India, for example, mothers get 26 weeks or a full half a year of paid leave. Sweden goes even further, offering paid leave to both mothers and fathers, which they can collect until their child is 18 months old, or a year and a half. Often, Swedish mothers and fathers will take turns, with one staying on leave while the other returns to work, allowing ample time for both parents to bond with their new baby.
Even in Ghana, there are plans in the works to extend maternity leave for 12 to 16 weeks for new mothers. In fact, parents get more time to bond with their babies just about anywhere else in the world than they do here.
In many households in America today, parents need both incomes to pay the household bills, which prevents parents from bonding with their children in such a fashion. And this lack of paid parental leave has a devastating effect not just on the health of children and parents, but also on workplace productivity and profits.
Forcing parents to return to work within six weeks of their child’s birth leaves workers exhausted, overwhelmed and unable to focus. When new parents worry about the baby they left in someone else’s care, they struggle to focus on the task at hand. Not only that: Many workers, overwhelmed by excessive demands, make the risky financial decision to quit their jobs. That doesn’t just impact their family finances, but it places the burden on the business to find and train a new employee — a very cost-intensive endeavor.
If the lack of paid leave is damaging the health and productivity of entire families and detrimental to the profit margin of businesses, why doesn’t the U.S. develop a solution? The answer is partisan politics, coupled with an incorrect viewpoint that government-run programs designed to help people are inherently “socialist” and an affront to capitalism.
The Trump administration’s plans for six weeks of paid leave only covers parents, not those who need time off to care for other ill family members or for themselves. And, as the program would receive funding through the unemployment insurance programs of individual states, in many, the income would not be enough to allow low-wage workers to take time off, even if available. Many of the lowest-wage workers would find themselves struggling to survive on half their paycheck or less. When the worker’s paycheck already is stretched so thin, it would force many new parents to return to work anyway, some as early as two weeks after the birth of their child.
Given America’s ‘great power status’ which we like to brag about as well, there is no reason for us to be forcing new parents back to work and denying paid leave to those who need time to care for a new baby or an ailing family member. If 185 other nations — some of them quite poor — can offer paid leave, we can, too. A country is not a company— we need to begin to value human life more than we value the idea that capitalism is king.
Kate Harveston is a political commentator and blogger. She blogs at onlyslightlybiased.com. She is a regular contributor to ViewsWeek. She tweets at @KateHarveston