This piece was originally published by Newsweek on May 19th, 2021.
As America turns the corner on the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of parents are breathing a sigh of relief; everyone loves their own kids, but being trapped inside with the little hellraisers for over a year would test even Mr. Roger’s patience. Yet not everyone has had the luxury of being able to work from home or to take the leave necessary to juggle work and family. Many of working class families—who were no less affected by school and child care closures—wish they could be so lucky as to grow tired of working from home with their kids.
The experience of the pandemic revealed many things about our society, not least the bifurcated nature of our family support system. Take Americans’ unequal access to paid leave: While paid leave of various sorts has become a standard employee benefit for white collar professionals, the same cannot be said for the majority of working class Americans. That includes nearly a quarter of workers without paid sick leave—a fact that forced Congress to set up a hasty system of employer reimbursements in recognition that going to work when you’re sick with a highly contagious and deadly virus is, well, not good for anyone.
And yet, sick leave is just the tip of the iceberg. In 2020, only 20 percent of private sector workers had access to paid family leave to care for a child or a family member, while a majority (58 percent) lacked the short-term disability insurance needed to take leave to recover from an illness or medical condition. Unpaid leave can only go so far, as we saw clearly in the toll the pandemic took on female labor force participation, which is what happens when moms’ temporary leave turns permanent. You saw it as well in our over-reliance on enhanced unemployment insurance, a kind of “paid leave of last resort,” just without the employer attachment.
Conservatives have always had one eye on the economic anxieties of the American family, but with the fallout of the pandemic still fresh—including signs of a substantial “Covid Baby Bust“—conservative interest in strategies to strengthen the bonds of family have never been greater. And for good reason: America’s birth rate tumbled well below replacement levels during the Great Recession, never recovered, and has only declined since.
Parents across the board are having fewer kids than they claim they want. Pregnancies can be financially shocking, both with and without health insurance, given the potential for complications and surprise billing. And those who lack access to paid family and medical leave face a double-whammy, given the dramatic household loss in income that’s known empirically to coincide with childbirth.
While there are many paid leave proposals in circulation, some more comprehensive than others, calls for action on paid family leave have become resoundingly bipartisan.
Financial insecurity doesn’t only limit family formation; it can also affect the health of children and families in a wide variety of ways. Taking advantage of paid leave to bond with and emotionally support one’s child after birth has been shown to improve a child’s postnatal health, as well the mental health of the mother. Parental attention from ages zero to five has a robust relationship with a child’s educational attainment and health as an adult. Parental leave of less than 12 weeks, meanwhile, is associated with increased maternal depression, anxiety, stress, and marital instability.
Single mothers, in particular, often struggle after birth to support their children while working. Financial difficulties compound until they’re forced to exit the workforce and fall back onto public assistance. In contrast, in the year following childbirth, mothers who receive paid leave are 39 percent less likely to receive public assistance and 40 percent less likely to receive food stamps than mothers who do not receive such compensation, and in a way that ends up requiring less total spending by the government. A single mother who’s forced into a means-tested welfare program in lieu of maternity leave has a form of “paid leave” by some other name, but at what cost?
Republicans aren’t about to vote for President Biden’s expansive paid family and medical leave proposal, much less his multi-trillion dollar “Family Plan.” Nonetheless, were a reasonable proposal for paid family leave on the table, you can bet it would have the votes and then some.
With multiple Republican paid leave plans introduced in just the last few years, a bipartisan solution is well within reach. The only question is whether Democrats are willing to sideline their omnibus approach and, in a word, focus on the family.