Will the US join the rest of the modern world – and California, New Jersey and Rhode Island – by supporting, with real policies, family values? That’s the question that the proposed expansion of family and medical leave raises. The extension to the act, to be introduced into the US Congress in early October, proposes paid leave for mothers at the birth of a child and also provides for paid leave when a child must be out of school or daycare for medical reasons.
This may sound radical – but it’s not. The US is the only one of the 38 countries, mostly wealthy but some not so wealthy, such as Mexico, Portugal and Turkey, that provides no paid maternity leave at the birth of a child. Why can all these countries afford it and we can’t? Even the unpaid maternity leave guaranteed under the existing provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 is the shortest maternity leave of any of these countries.
There are many reasons for supporting the expansion of family and medical leave to include paid leave. It can be argued on the basis of social justice, that women who bear the largest burden of ensuring the continuation of the species should get economic support in doing so. It can be argued in terms of the well being of children and families. The first few weeks of a child’s life are very important in terms of family bonding and laying the foundation for future well being. "Family life" includes fathers, and over half of these countries provide for some period of paternity leave.
The expansion can also be supported on the basis of an economics of fairness. The mothers who would likely benefit the most are those in the low wage sector, often working more than one job. Insuring that these mothers have the time and space – the opportunity to connect with their new child – is a great investment in that child’s future in terms of increasing the likelihood of success in school and reducing the chances of the child ending up in trouble with the law. Workers in the US low wage sector are disproportionately female and include a significant portion of single moms. Today the only way this group of workers, this group of family members, can share the experience of the first few weeks of their child’s lives, or be present when the child must see a doctor, is to take unpaid leave. But these mothers (and fathers) can’t afford unpaid leave – even if their employer will honor the legal commitment to keep their job open. Almost 30% of low income women with children can’t even afford an adequate supply of diapers. Without the financial support provided under a policy of paid leave these mothers can’t possibly take the time off to welcome their children into the world.
In a polity and an economy organized for the well being of all, there would be no opposition to paid family and medical leave. In such a political economy, the US would also not rank last on this measure. But, of course, there will be vocal opposition to any proposal for paid maternity (not to mention paternity) leave.
Where will the conservative “family values” advocates be when this legislation is introduced? We’ll bet that those political “leaders” who talk the most about family values will lead the opposition. They won’t walk the walk. And if they prove our prediction wrong? Great!
Arguments will also be made that business can’t simply afford this policy – especially in this difficult economy. Of course, that begs the question of why other economies prosper with paid leave policies. And, it is important to emphasize that the proposed act is financed by a trust fund created by a 0.2 percent levy on both employees and employers – up to a maximum of $4.36/week/employee. The US, the wealthiest country in the world, can’t afford that?