Building a Competitive Future Right from the Start: How Paid Leave Strengthens 21st Century Families

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This is an excerpt from the full report.


The landscape for 21st century American children and families is terra incognita, filled with great potential, as well as daunting challenges. Unprecedented economic, social, technological, and environmental changes define life for millennial citizens, with profound implications for human and workforce development as well as the course of our civil society. The demographics of the United States workforce shifted radically over the closing decades of the 20th century. In the majority of American families today, all adults are in the workforce and two-thirds of dual-earner couples work a combined total of more than 80 hours a week. Many more families are also headed by a single working parent – most commonly the mother – and more than 60 percent of women with children under 3 years old are in the workforce. Women are working longer hours than ever, and even as traditional gender roles are eroding, they bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the care of young children and elderly relatives.

In 2012, the United States remains the only advanced, industrialized nation without a federally mandated paid family leave policy, standing with Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland in its failure to offer legal protection to workers who need time off to care for a new baby. The absence of such support for parents highlights the outlier status of the U.S. among the 178 nations that guarantee paid leave for new mothers and the 54 countries that do so for fathers. Our federal and state family and work policies are woefully out of synch with the dramatic demographic changes of the past half-century, spawning a generation of families in which work obligations increasingly compete with children’s needs for parental time and energy. This conflict is especially acute for low-income parents, whose jobs offer few family-support benefits. In a nation where 44 percent of children live in low-income families and more than one child in five lives in poverty, the repercussions for children’s healthy development and success are serious, and demand our attention.

On April 25, 2012, the National Center for Children in Poverty, in partnership with the New York Paid Leave Coalition and A Better Balance, convened a dynamic public forum, at the Ford Foundation in New York City, to advance paid family leave. The gathering brought together more than 100 researchers, advocates, policymakers, early childhood education and health practitioners, as well as nonprofit and business leaders, to explore the latest evidence-based research on the impacts of paid family leave on early child development and family health and to generate strategies for advancing paid family leave in New York State and the nation. The forum agenda (see Appendix A) was varied, including remarks from distinguished guests and experts, highlighted throughout this paper; discussion of pioneering leave programs in the states (see pages 6-8); and three cross-disciplinary panels of experts, enlivened by the active participation of an informed audience (see Appendix B). Speakers, panelists, and audience participants weighed in on the following fundamental issues of human and societal development:

  • improving child and maternal health;
  • maximizing the potential of child development;
  • balancing parental work and family responsibilities;
  • strengthening family economic security and gender equity at home and in the workplace; and
  • examining the role that society and government play in supporting and enhancing family life and the development of human capital.

Frequently, conversations about each of these issues occur separately, on parallel tracks, as is often the case in public policy and systems. This isolation comes at a high cost to human development, as solutions that address multiple areas are overlooked. The spirit of cross-sector, interdisciplinary engagement informed the forum throughout the day, culminating in participant break-out sessions devoted to brainstorming strategies for collective action to advance paid family leave in New York State and the nation.

This paper provides a brief history of paid family leave policy, in the United States and abroad; synthesizes cutting-edge knowledge about paid leave and its impact on family and civic life; and concludes with a set of recommendations – for policymakers, researchers, public health and early childhood stakeholders, business leaders, and federal, state, and local education agencies – to guide the work going forward.

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