Republicans and Democrats have found every way to disagree when it comes to health policy, and this has caused us to lag behind on enacting legislation that will move our country forward. One of those policies is paid family leave following childbirth. There are not many similarities between the United States and Papua New Guinea, but surprisingly our great nation and New Guinea are two of very few nations that do not provide paid family leave after childbirth. But, we are at the perfect time for change. While the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid and job-protected leave, was passed under Clinton, President Trump has been a leader in the Republican party by being the first Republican president to endorse paid family leave for mothers and fathers after a newborn or an adopted child.
The first months of life are the most critical for a child. Poor upbringing can negatively impact a child’s entire life, and right now, only 17% of private industry workers have access to paid family leave. In our fiercely capitalistic society, almost 80% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and this makes taking time off to care for a newborn more challenging than ever before, which is why 25% of mothers must return to work within 10 days of giving birth. Researchers using data from the U.S. National Survey of Family Growth found that mothers who have access to paid leave are more likely to begin breastfeeding their newborn and are twice as likely to continue breastfeeding at 6 months compared to mothers who do not have access to paid family leave. Without breastfeeding or adequate time for bonding, a child’s full potential may be hindered. Unfortunately, there are no long term studies on the effects of paid family leave; however, it could be argued that the severity of future issues for a child and the likelihood of the child to utilize social welfare during adulthood is reduced if proper care during infancy is provided. This system overwhelmingly negatively affects the poor, who are often kept in cycles of substandard academic performance, but legislation on the floor of Congress could break that cycle.
Women who receive paid family leave have a higher likelihood of returning to their job, which benefits the entire system involved—the employer benefits from not having to spend additional money on training a new employee and the US economy benefits from a higher and more dedicated labor force. However, the largest challenge to the enactment of paid family leave is the possibility that some employers will choose not to hire women who are likely to have a child. This notion is substantiated by empirical data from New Jersey, which implemented statewide paid family leave in 2009. A 2016 study in New Jersey found that employment rates for women aged 22 to 34 fell about 8%. However, data is limited and states such as California have found that 90% of employers felt positively or neutral about paid leave after it was enacted statewide in 2004.
Now, with all this said, what are the plans currently being debated on the floor of Congress? As with the majority of our politics today, all the paid family leave proposals in Congress can be represented by two main plans: a fiscally conservative plan, led by senators Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney, as well as a liberal plan, led by senator and democratic candidate Kirsten Gillibrand. The two significant plans are briefly described below, and the best path of action is highly debated… where do you stand?
Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act: A working parent can receive 12 weeks of paid leave at 66% of normal wage with a maximum benefit of $4000/month. This plan would be paid for with a 0.2-0.4% payroll tax on all working American employees and employers, depending on your employment status. This is how the system is paid for by states like New Jersey that have already implemented statewide paid parental leave. One of the main concerns with this plan is that it adds a new tax. Despite a great federal deficit, our current administration and Congress voted on and passed a significant tax cut in 2017. Because of this, it is very unlikely that a plan proposing to add a new tax to working Americans will be well received by Republican congressmen.
Rubio and Romney’s New Parents Act of 2019: Working employees and employers contribute to social security, and this bill allows parents to tap into their future social security benefits to finance their leave, which can be up to 12 weeks. You are essentially paying for your own leave with money you were going to receive. In exchange for using this money earlier, a parent may work for 3-6 months past retirement age and continue contributing to their social security during this time, or they may receive small reductions in their social security benefits upon retirement. Similar to the FAMILY Act, parents will receive about 66% of their normal wage until a maximum benefit is reached. Overall, this mitigates the cost burden on employers, employees, and companies as a whole.
A significant issue is that there is bipartisan agreement that something needs to be done; however, neither side has been willing to accept the other’s way of acting, and this has blocked the enactment of any substantial federal bill regarding this issue. Right now, Democrats may need to accept that a full-benefit bill (FAMILY act) may not pass because of the added new tax stipulation that is highly unfavored among Republicans, who currently control the Senate and the Presidency. It may be important to start slowly with a more moderate bill like the New Parents Act proposed by Republicans, which is a more practical and feasible solution in our current state of no federal mandate for paid family leave.
Burtle, A., & Bezruchka, S. (2016, June 01). Population Health and Paid Parental Leave: What the United States Can Learn from Two Decades of Research.
Jou, J., Kozhimannil, K. B., Abraham, J. M., Blewett, L. A., & McGovern, P. M. (2017, November 02). Paid Maternity Leave in the United States: Associations with Maternal and Infant Health.
May, A. (2017, May 18). Paid family leave is an elite benefit in the U.S.
Mirkovic, K. R., Perrine, C. G., & Scanlon, K. S. (2016, March 17). Paid Maternity Leave and Breastfeeding Outcomes – Mirkovic – 2016 – Birth – Wiley Online Library.
O’Dea, C. (2019, February 11). Lawmakers Move to Improve Paid Family Leave Program in New Jersey.
Vesoulis, A. (2019, May 16). Americans Could Finally Get Paid Family Leave. But Who Pays?
Warner-Richter, M. (2017, October 27). Paid parental leave is rare, but good for kids.
Congressional Research Service: Paid Family Leave in the United States
National Partnership for Women & Families: The Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act
S.463 – FAMILY Act 116th Congress (2019-2020)
S.920 – New Parents Act of 2019 116th Congress (2019-2020)