Why we need paid family leave

Sarah Buchmann

Image by Isabel Sperry

As someone who has often thought about my own decision to have children, especially as someone who aspires to have a career in education, family planning is a common thought of mine when I daydream about the (very far) future. I’m lucky enough to go into a line of work that takes a two month break in the summer. Unless, of course, you count summer school, professional development and curriculum planning, all of which are not officially required, but certainly expected. If anything, summer would be the ideal time to have a baby but family planning can only do so much. A woman can’t get pregnant on demand, and although trying to get pregnant while ovulating does increase such probability, it is still not a guarantee that a fetus will develop. Such a predicament lands me-and aspiring or already pregnant teachers all over America, in a tough situation. When is the right time for the working family to have a baby?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), at least 78.2 percent of families had at least one employed family member in 2020. Only 45.5 percent of families had both parents in the workforce. It’s certainly easier to have a child with one unemployed parent at home; that parent can take care of the baby while the other is at work. However, when nearly half of all families have both parents working, infant care and parental leave can cause a huge stress on the family. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and confirmed by the BLS, only 21 percent of employed Americans have access to paid parental leave. Unpaid parental leave is completely unjustified, especially when 82 percent of Americans support paid parental leave, as found in a study conducted at The Ohio State University.

Like a lot of issues in the United States, countries already seem to have figured the logistics out. In an study published earlier this year by Pew Research, researchers found that despite the pioneering economic status of the United States, we are far behind when it comes to taking care of parents. There is no mandated paid leave in the United States; meanwhile Estonia gives its citizens 86 weeks of paid parental leave, and both Japan and Norway give their citizens over a year. Other countries’ parental leave do not specify whether it is the mother or father who is given time off – this is an extra bonus time off for either parent, usually after the initial paternity or maternity leave around the time of birth.

The initial time spent between the parent and the infant have psychological benefits for both parties. Not only does the bond between child and parent grow stronger, but according to a study from Psychology Today, paid maternal leave shows “a lower likelihood of postpartum depression, lower psychological distress, and a better mood among mothers.” And with more time at home, a mother can breastfeed the child, fitting in with the World Health Organization’s recommendation for six months of breastfeeding. However, with an unpaid leave, the stress to go back to work is much stronger, which would cause the parent to want to go back to work, putting unnecessary and negative stress on both the infant and the parent..

Paid parental leave also does more than strengthen the bond between parent and child. The same Psychology Today article points out that societal benefits include “wage stability” and “a lesser need for public welfare.” The Department of Labor (DOL) reported that nearly two thirds of unpaid parents on parental leave had “financially difficulty in making ends meet” and lost out on nearly $9,500 by not working. In the same report from the DOL,  American Progress said, “This equates to families losing 58 percent of their quarterly income.” However for marginalized families, “the percent of household income lost due to unpaid leave is even greater. When a regular source of pay is eliminated from the household income, families tend to turn to welfare and other means of government assistance. If, in theory, the current political party in charge was bent on cutting down the numbers of people on government financial assistance or welfare, then it would be in their best interest to push ahead a bill that helps new families get paid parental leave. 

The Biden administration announced in April this year that there was a plan in place to support paid parental leave. As explained by the Society for Human Resource Management, President Biden proposed a 225 million dollar boost plan under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to stimulate paid parental leave in job positions that do not currently have paid leave in place. And under this proposal, funding would not come from the employers themselves, but rather by taxing those more financially endowed. The top one percent of wealthy Americans would have their taxes raised by roughly 37 to 39 percent, and those who earn more than one million dollars a year would find increases in taxes as well. According to a CNBC report, Up to four thousand dollars a month could be distributed to workers during their leave. Making at least two-thirds of their average weekly pay recovered. In no way does this equate to what they would typically earn, but it at least provides a form of aid and strengthens the necessary familial bond between parents and infants in the early stages of development.

The United States is already one of the most developed countries in the world – we’re a global superpower, an economic titan, and a military warlord. But in order to achieve these titles, we’ve moved away from caring about our citizens.. A monetary stimulus plan for the FMLA, like the one Biden has proposed, could help bring us closer to what a true democracy stands for – the people.