Would six weeks of paid parental leave be a good step forward?
The president’s budget includes a proposal to provide working parents six weeks of paid leave after childbirth or adoption. Some Democratic members of Congress have denounced this plan as “woefully inadequate.” But I’d argue that six weeks is a lot better than none.
The six weeks in Trump’s plan are only half of the 12 weeks provided under the FAMILY Act, which is supported by many Democrats in Congress. It also is low by international standards. A study of 185 countries found that only 15 percent provide fewer than 12 weeks of paid maternity leave (32 percent provide 12 to 13 weeks, 30 percent provide 14 to 17 weeks, and 23 percent provide 18 weeks or more).
Six weeks may seem short to some, but it would be a big step forward from the zero weeks of paid maternity leave available to most working mothers and fathers in the United States. The United States is one of two countries—the other is Papua New Guinea—that does not have a national paid leave policy to allow mothers to spend time caring for their newborns and regain their health after childbirth.
Only 1 in 7 American workers has access to paid parental leave through public or private leave programs. Others can sometimes cobble together sick and vacation leave, but for many workers, the only options are to return to work immediately after childbirth, quit their jobs, or take unpaid leave—which can sometimes result in job loss.
A Census Bureau report shows that
5 percent of first-time mothers who worked during their pregnancy in 2006–08 were let go from their job during pregnancy or within six months of childbirth,
22 percent quit their job,
42 percent took unpaid leave,
10 percent took disability leave, and
51 percent used paid maternity, sick, vacation, or other paid leave.
(These percentages add to more than 100 percent because many mothers use a combination of arrangements).
Workers with less education have the least access to paid leave: 11 percent of mothers without a college degree were let go from their jobs, and 50 percent quit their jobs during pregnancy or shortly after childbirth.
Whether 6 or 12 weeks—or even 9 weeks—a national program of paid leave would be a huge step forward for this country. It would reduce the number of young families facing severe economic stress in the first months of their baby’s life.
It is not clear whether Congress will agree on national paid leave legislation. Crafting a national policy requires making choices not only about the length of leave, but also about who should be covered, how high benefit amounts should be, and how benefits should be funded and administered. In a brief on paid family leave that highlights these and other implementation choices, my colleagues and I noted several important differences between the Trump plan and the FAMILY Act (and the tax credit approach favored by some Republican members of Congress).
Yet a middle ground can be found. The Trump proposal would have parental leave benefits administered through unemployment insurance programs (administered by state departments of labor), whereas the FAMILY Act proposed a national plan of parental benefits administered by a new office of the Social Security Administration. Perhaps one could take the best of both plans, with a national policy providing the equity of uniform coverage and benefit amounts (as in the FAMILY Act), yet state administration through departments of labor (as in the Trump plan). This could capture the efficiency of building on agencies that already have quarterly earnings data and are accustomed to reviewing applications and issuing benefit checks relatively quickly.
Other differences may be harder to bridge, and fashioning a bill that appeals to both sides of the aisle will not be easy, particularly in this environment. Yet as policymakers debate how much leave to give and how to put this policy into practice, it’s important to acknowledge the inadequacies and inequities of the current array of options for working parents with newborn babies. Six weeks of paid leave would be a huge improvement over the zero weeks currently available for many working parents and their families.
Paige Gould, holding her two-month-old daughter Jocelyn, talks on the phone for a moment during a meeting with Robyn Smith, the general manager at Tipo. Gould, who co-owns Tipo and Central Provisions with her husband, has been bringing her daughter with her when she needs to go into work while she is on maternity leave. Photo by Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images.