- Democrats and Republicans agree that the US needs paid leave policies for new parents.
- The reason the US doesn’t have one yet while the rest of the developed world does comes down to distinct cultural values.
- Values and opinions are shifting in the US, so it may not be long until there is a federal leave policy.
As conventional wisdom goes, the need for paid parental leave is a polarising an issue in the US.
It’s the best way to explain why the US is the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t have it.
But according to new research, most Americans actually agree that workers should get paid time off to take care of a new baby.
According to a poll from our partner, MSN, 93% of Americans agree that mothers should receive some paid leave after new babies arrive. Nationally, 85% of Americans say fathers should be entitled to paid leave, while 88% of Americans say the same for adoptive parents.
MSN polls its readers, and then uses machine learning to model how a representative sample of the US would have responded, using big data, such as the Census. It’s nearly as accurate as a traditional, scientific survey.
Interestingly, whether or not parents receive paid leave is not a partisan issue.
While 96% of Democrats say mothers should get paid leave, a whopping 88% of Republicans agree. When it comes to paternity leave, things are more split — while 93% of Democrats think fathers should have it, 77% of Republicans agree. And as for adoptive parents, 94% of Democrats think they’re entitled to paid leave, and 81% of Republicans concur.
More Democrats than Republicans support paid leave — but the divide isn’t huge, and the majority of Republicans are on board.
So why, then, doesn’t the US have a national policy. Better yet, will we ever see one?
You could certainly write a book on why the US has yet to see a federal paid leave policy — but the answers essentially come down to two distinct cultural elements at play in the US: the values we place in individualism and business.
For decades, workers in the US have subscribed to the notion of the “American Dream” — that if individuals work hard enough, they can successfully carve out their own piece of the pie.
For the longest time, these ideals have been incompatible with the idea of paying new parents to spend time off from work with their kids.
But that appears to be changing.
Not just a personal issue anymore
“Just buying formula for my baby was awful,” Krystal Weston, a mother in Durham, North Carolina, told Business Insider in a previous interview.
“I hate asking people for money or putting people in a bind, but there were plenty of times where we had to ask my boyfriend’s mum to help us buy formula and diapers because we also had to pay the rent.”
As a dietary aide working in the kitchen of a rehabilitation center in Durham, Weston was granted 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 when she had her baby, Noah, in December 2013.
Without the guarantee of paid leave while caring for her child, she was faced with the choice between economic hardship and returning to work prematurely. She chose to go without pay for almost 12 weeks to take care of him, a decision she didn’t take lightly.
Noah’s father and Weston’s partner, Jamal Mustafa, moved in with Weston after Noah was born to help support the family. As an assistant manager at a clothing store in Durham, he brought home about $US575 per paycheck. The couple’s rent was $US525 a month.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, new parents spend, on average, about $US70 a month for baby clothes and diapers and more than $US120 a month on baby food and formula. Big-ticket items like furniture and medical expenses add up quickly.
“Plenty of nights I would stay up with Jamal and budget out our bills so that we could possibly have some funds left over to save for the next month,” Weston said.
Soon after becoming pregnant, Weston applied for public assistance. She was initially granted $US75 a month on food stamps, which increased to about $US300 a month after she gave birth to Noah, and she used this to buy household necessities and formula.
Since Weston was nursing, she qualified for The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to receive free milk, wheat bread, eggs, and cheese. “I was appreciative of anything I could get without having to buy with real money,” she said.
“If I hadn’t had these assistance programs for mothers my maternity leave would have been a nightmare,” she told Business Insider. “Who wants to worry about money and not knowing where their next meal is coming from?”
Weston’s experience is not uncommon in the US.
According to a 2012 report from the US Department of Labour on family and medical leave, about 15% of people who were not paid or who received partial pay while on leave turned to public assistance for help. About 60% of workers who took this leave reported it was difficult making ends meet, and almost half reported they would have taken longer leave if more pay had been available.
“The US really stands alone in having a different national attitude towards time off from work,” NPR political reporter and data expert Danielle Kurtzleben told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. As one political scientist told her, “‘It’s this idea of the American Dream — we’re all kind of aspirational — the US is a kind of individualistic place.'”
“People would prefer to try to keep taxes low, let individuals be responsible for their own care, and that’s sort of become the accepted value system in the US,” Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family and a family leave expert, told the LA Times.
But this out-for-yourself attitude may be shifting.
In 2014, President Barack Obama discussed paid leave in his State of the Union Address. In 2016, for the first time in American politics, both sides of the aisle proposed plans for paid family leave policies and discussed the consequences of having no such policy. On Thursday, Trump adviser and daughter Ivanka Trump advocated for paid family leave on Capitol Hill. Google Trends also shows an uptick in Google searches for “paid leave” and “maternity leave” in the US starting in 2014.
Thanks in part to the the heightened attention paid leave has been receiving over recent years, we see that Americans are beginning to acknowledge that pulling yourself up by the bootstraps just doesn’t work in this case — the American Dream does not apply here — and that it’s a systemic, not just personal, issue.
We even see this playing out among millennials — arguably the most individualistic generation. Of the 18 to 29-year-olds MSN polled, 95% said mothers should receive paid leave and 93% said fathers should, too. And 27% of the people in this age group — the highest percentage of the age groups polled — said the government — i.e. taxpayers — should foot the bill.
“People are realising that when this many people are having the exact same problem at the exact same time, we don’t have an epidemic of personal failings where people simply just couldn’t cobble together nonexistent access to sick days or to paid time off,” Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, CEO of the grass-roots advocacy group MomsRising, told NPR. “We have actually a national structural problem that we can solve together.”
Pro-business doesn’t mean anti-paid-leave
“Historically workers have thought of themselves as potentially, eventually becoming small business owners. And well, when we all own our own businesses one day, we’re not going to be hamstrung by government regulations,” Kurtzleben said.
Not until businesses — and potential business owners — get on board will we see a national paid leave policy, Harrington said.
But business’ attitudes are shifting, and we’re seeing that paid leave isn’t the small business killer it was once said to be.
In 2015, 12% of private sector workers had access to paid family leave through their employers. Now we’re up to 14%. In the span of just a few years, the US has seen numerous private sector companies expand their parental leave offerings.
On the state level, the US now boasts five states and the District of Columbia — up from just three states in 2015 — that offer or will offer paid family leave programs.
In New Jersey, where employees and employers contribute a small amount from each paycheck to an insurance fund, the program is overwhelmingly considered a success and a far cry from the business-killer these programs are often feared to be.
A study from the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University found that women who had taken advantage of New Jersey’s paid-family-leave policy were far more likely than mothers who hadn’t to be working nine to 12 months after the birth of their child.
The study also found these women to be 39% less likely to receive public assistance and 40% less likely to receive food stamps in the year following a child’s birth compared to those who didn’t take any leave.
And in Washington state, for the first time in US history, we saw businesses work with lawmakers to develop a state-wide leave policy.
With the FAMILY act before Congress, the Trump administration’s support of a paid leave policy, and Americans’ overwhelming support of paid leave policies, the pieces all appear to be in place — it’s just a matter of time before the US catches up to the rest of the world.
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