Improving Work-Life Balance in the US


The state inherently plays a role in the lives of its citizens. Through the implementation or removal of laws, government policies promote a wide range of behaviors by providing or diminishing incentives. Regarding family policy, the conservative approach is to promote a family-based support system that encourages a single breadwinner, centered on traditional gendered roles. The liberal approach to family policy, conversely, promotes a dual-income household and shared child care alongside government support. Historically, the United States has favored the conservative approach to family policy. However, a sustained gender pay gap and a noticeable lack of women in powerful positions may be indicators the policy has passed its expiration date.

In the 1960s, feminists in the U.S. focused their movement on economic labor equality for women which helped facilitate an exponential rise of women in the workplace. Between 1962 and 2000, women’s workforce participation rose from 37 percent to 61 percent but has since decreased to 57.2 percent in 2016. All the while, female education attainment has surpassed that of men. A common explanation for this statistical fluctuation has been women’s primary role as primary child caregivers. In 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act was signed by President Clinton entitling workers to twelve weeks of unpaid leave following the birth or adoption of a child. However, more than 40 percent of private-sector workers do not qualify for this leave.

Despite a lack of corporate acceptance, the implementation of family policy is garnering greater public attention. Considering the dismantling of traditional gender roles and the inability of the FMLA to properly cover millions of families, it may be time for the U.S. to address the concept of paid parental leave. Among high-income nations, the U.S. stands alone as the only country that does not guarantee paid maternity leave but, this may not be the case for much longer. According to a poll conducted by Pew Research Center in 2016, bipartisan support for paid parental leave garners an 82 percent majority in favor of policy geared towards mothers, paid paternal leave saw a 69 percent approval rating.  Parental leave in an ideological sense has gained popularity in the U.S., however, ideas on how such policies would be implemented are sharply divided. Most supporters of the policy pressure companies to foot the bill instead of the government. This sentiment is shared across political parties.

In the 2016 Presidential election, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both addressed the issue. Neither proposed to extend the duration of the program and Donald Trump showed no intention of expanding leave to fathers. Since the election, the paid parental leave has developed onto a bill. The FAMILY Act was introduced to Congress by Senator Gillibrand in February of 2017 and would provide workers with up to 66 percent of monthly wages for twelve weeks of leave. If passed the bill will strengthen families’ economic independence and promote equal parental workforce participation. There is precedence for the effectiveness of the FAMILY Act through state-run programs. Notably in California and New Jersey where analyses have shown benefits to workers and employers, lower than expected costs, and high favorability from the public.

Women are less likely to be employed after starting a family. Paid parental leave is a way to keep women connected to their employer while caring for their child something other countries do much better than ours. Sweden and the United States share similar birth rates: about 2 children per female. Yet Sweden, which has paid parental leave, sees 82 percent of women employed after having a child while in the United States the rate is 69 percent. This study conducted in 2009, suggests that paid parental leave keeps women engaged in the workforce. Sweden offers its citizens a premium parental leave option. Entitling new parents to 480 days of leave split between mother and father while earning 80 percent of their pay. This not only facilitates an environment for parents and children to bond but to do so without the looming potential for becoming destitute. Paid parental leave policies should be seen less as entitlements and more as stimulants for economic independence, gender equality, and strong family units.

Effective, gender-neutral, paid parental leave policy does not currently exist in the U.S. Implementing paid parental leave policy would allow families to distribute child care among both parents and improve the efficiency of childcare. The program could also encourage parents to pursue higher career goals and drive economic engagement by providing a sufficient safety net at a time when those parents feel most vulnerable. Across the globe, gender-neutral, paid family leave has shown to benefit families and nations but the implementation of them in the U.S. has proven to be difficult. It is time for us to create policy that truly cares about a child by allowing their parents to take leave without fear or remediation.

Image Source: San Francisco Examiner