This Sunday, as we honor mothers — send flowers, wine them and dine them — we should also reflect on how we treat mothers the rest of the year.
When it comes to aiding mothers, the United States is a laggard in the industrial world.
Decades ago, this was not a major issue. Not many women worked for pay outside the home or family business, especially women with young children. This is no longer the case. Nearly three-quarters of mothers, many with infants, are in the paid labor force. Mothers today are doing double duty.
This creates financial problems.
Giving birth is costly. So, too, is supporting a larger family. Day care is a particular problem, because most families require two earners to meet their financial needs, and many families have only one adult.
More important, women need to take some time off from work immediately before and after they give birth. This leads to the loss of substantial income.
Higher expenses and lower income usually equal debt. But loans must be repaid with interest, affecting family finances for many years.
Even worse, many studies have found that when women return to work shortly after giving birth, their child’s health is adversely affected, their children are more likely to have behavior problems, and their child’s language and cognitive skills suffer.
Paid parental leave is one simple solution to these problems. Sadly, the United States is the only developed nation that doesn’t provide paid leave.
President Bill Clinton signed a family leave bill in February 1993. The law provides job protection to women who take time off to give birth or adopt. However, the time off is unpaid. Taking leave means losing income.
Two states, California and New Jersey, have adopted paid parental leave through their unemployment insurance programs, but state benefits are meager when available. In addition, states that provide such benefits must increase taxes, putting them at a competitive disadvantage compared with states that don’t. A national policy of paid parental leave is necessary.
Most countries replace 70 to 100 percent of prior wages, for 14 to 20 weeks and up, around the time of birth or adoption. The money lets mothers take time off to care for their new child.
The cost is relatively small in other developed countries — a few tenths of 1 percent of GDP. On the other hand, the cost of not having a paid leave program is huge.
In the United States, child poverty has averaged 20 percent since the late 1970s and around 25 percent for very young children (birth to 2 years old). In other developed nations, the child poverty rate is less than half this, largely because of paid parental leave.
The Center for American Progress recently estimated that child poverty costs the United States $500 billion per year, nearly 4 percent of our GDP. It does this through lowering future productivity and income, increasing crime rates and raising health expenditures. A U.S. program as generous as that of other developed nations could pay for itself if it cut poverty for young children substantially. Even if it doesn’t, and even in an era of large budget deficits, it is something the United States must have and can afford.
Other nations generally finance paid leave with payroll taxes. There are some simple ways to incorporate paid parental leave into Social Security. A small increase in the Social Security taxable wage cap (currently maxed at $113,700) would do it.
Alternatively, we can increase the time people can collect full Social Security benefits. Twelve weeks of paid leave would require each parent to work only six weeks more to collect their full Social Security benefits.
Paid parental leave is an investment in children and in the nation’s future — one all other developed nations are making. It is a way to truly honor mothers and families.