Last week, I visited some friends who’d recently welcomed their first baby, a boy, to the world. They reminded me of every new parent I’ve ever known, including myself. They were proud, full of love, exhausted and awed by the intensity of their new responsibility. The first months of a baby’s life are critical for a child’s development and can set the stage for a lifetime of caregiving habits for parents. My friends are off to a strong start — and they both have several months of paid leave to invest in their new son. But in the U.S., having the choice and opportunity to stay at home with a newborn is a rare luxury.
While every other developed country in the world ensures paid time off for new parents, the U.S. has no national paid family leave policy. This is unfortunate because paid leave has been linked to economic growth, lower rates of postpartum depression, more breastfeeding, increased baby checkups and even a lower rate of infant mortality.
A smart proposal for national paid family leave would look to the policies in the rest of the world and to states that have already created their own paid leave programs. It would borrow the best aspects of those programs and improve upon them.
Instead, according to the White House’s executive summary of his new budget, President Donald Trump has just proposed one of the world’s worst paid parental leave plans. He provides parents a paltry six weeks of time off with their new babies. It’s a disappointing bone to throw to the millions of people who could lose health care, nutritional assistance and child care tax credits if this profoundly anti-family budget was passed. It also falls far short of the six months of leave called for by leading health professionals and the minimum 14 weeks recommended by the U.N. In short, it still leaves the U.S. behind what most other countries offer new parents.
The White House also claims that the proposal would be “fully paid-for” — dubious given its use of unemployment insurance and reference to allowing states to establish programs. The use of state UI also suggests that parents cannot expect to receive their full paychecks while on leave — a serious problem for low wage working people.
In California — one of only three states in the U.S. to guarantee paid maternal leave — more than a decade of experience shows that many people earning lower wages can’t afford to take leave when it is only partially paid. California’s state paid family leave program provides employees with only 55% of their salaries for up to six weeks. If we want people who need family leave the most to be able to reap its benefits, we must provide enough to adequately meet their financial needs.
The other important lesson we’ve learned from states who have pioneered paid family leave is that it’s about so much more than new babies. In California, Rhode Island and New Jersey (New York will join them in 2018), residents can also take paid time off to care for an aging parent, an ill family member or their own critical medical care. As our population ages, more and more Americans will need provide care to elderly relatives — a pending crisis that also requires policy action now.
For years, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has been garnering support for a national paid family leave proposal that builds upon the successes of those state programs for new parents and families and provides up to 12 weeks of paid leave. If the Trump administration was serious about meeting the needs of working Americans, they would start with Gillibrand’s proposal and move up from that baseline.
Of course, as with any budget proposal, Congress can decide to ignore Trump’s recommendation, but perhaps they’ll take this opportunity to engage in a real conversation about what Americans need: real relief, not proposals that continue to leave us behind. It’s time to put families first.
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