There's Never Been a Better Case For Paid Parental Leave - and We Still Won't Get It

·4 min read
Mother working from home while holding toddler, family in background
Mother working from home while holding toddler, family in background

Although the US has held onto its grim status as one of just eight countries in the world without any national paid parental leave, the current climate has seemed ripe for change.

The pandemic has had staggering economic and social impacts that have disproportionately hurt women, and it has created the perfect storm of scenarios that make the Biden administration's paid family leave plan seem downright prudent, never mind a basic human right most civilized nations afford their new mothers.

For starters, in order to buoy the global economy, it behooves us to have the mass exodus of 1.8 million women reenter the workforce. Equalizing employment across gender lines would have added almost $500 billion to the US GDP in 2019, and such a recovery would even serve those still employed: according to a University of Akron economist, for every 10 percent increase in women at work, overall productivity increases, and a five percent increase in wages is seen for all workers, men included.

Yes, the pandemic has been particularly hard on women, but that's simply because we as a society have been particularly hard on women since long before COVID ever came to our shores.

It's also in our best interest to support new mothers as our already declining birth rate dropped to yet another record low this past year - there were just 56 births to every 1,000 women of child-bearing age, which is half of what the rates were in the early 1960s. Birth rates often drop during economic downturns, but prepandemic, surveys found that people were delaying or forgoing children because of the increasing costs of raising a child.

A paid leave plan, along with other proposed measures, could offset our nation's full-blown child-care crisis, in which costs have gone up a staggering 40 percent during the pandemic due to daycare closures and early-childhood employees - who earn around $12 per hour - have similarly exited jobs at accelerated rates. There simply are not enough affordable, high-quality child-care options to meet demand, and that has predominantly affected working mothers, especially low- and middle-income mothers - and those of color.

Related: Watch White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki Defend Her Colleague's Right to Paternity Leave

But despite this perfect storm of arguments for paid parental leave and a presidential administration desperate to put federal policy in place, it's all but certain that we still won't get it.

Congress is now considering four meager weeks of paid family and medical leave, down from the 12 weeks initially proposed in the Democrats' planned spending package. What will likely happen next is that Democrats will scrap paid family leave completely in order to appease those against government involvement and pass the roughly $3.5 trillion budget.

But when, according to the Department of Labor, only 18 percent of private-sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employer and 93 percent of minimum-wage workers have no such benefits, the belief that private businesses can and will just step in and offer it is unfounded.

The problems facing working mothers have never been fully hidden, but now they are not just in plain sight - they are magnified. Yet we still refuse to evolve our systems to support them.

In fact, in what should be the most opportune time in recent history to extend paid leave to all US citizens, we are instead handing women a scenario that is far worse than the status quo they'd experienced prepandemic.

Because that's the hitch in all this. Yes, the pandemic has been particularly hard on women, but that's simply because we as a society have been particularly hard on women since long before COVID ever came to our shores.

Before the coronavirus shuttered daycares and schools, mothers - working mothers included - were still bearing the brunt of child-rearing responsibilities. And both low-income women and women of color are far behind any other group in how fast they return to their jobs after a work stoppage. The pandemic has been no exception there.

The problems facing working mothers have never been fully hidden, but now they are not just in plain sight - they are magnified. Yet we still refuse to evolve our systems to support them.

We refuse to see paid parental leave as an unblemished win for all. Workers can afford to look after their loved ones without dropping out of the labor force, and businesses can retain employees, thereby increasing productivity, job satisfaction, and bottom-line growth.

We refuse to reach out and offer even the smallest shreds of support to women, not at work nor at home. And, if this perfect storm of missed possibility has proven anything, we'll never have to as long as women and mothers keep forging forward in a society that keeps pushing them farther and farther behind.

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