Paid Family Leave: Stengthening Families and Our Future

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This is an excerpt from the full brief.

Life for 21st-century children and families is defined by rapid economic, social, and technological change, with profound implications for human and workforce development. The demographics of the American workforce bear little resemblance to those of past decades. In most 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, usually the mother. More than 55 percent of women with children under 3 years old are in the workforce. Among those employed, the number of hours of work has also increased, most noticeably among women. Despite this, women commonly retain primary caregiver responsibilities – for both young children and elderly relatives.

Unlike elsewhere in the industrialized world, our federal and state family and work policies have failed to keep pace with these demographic changes. In 2012, the United States remains the only industrialized nation without a national paid family leave program that supports workers who need time off to attend to important family needs, such as caring for a new baby or a sick child. This policy vacuum has created a generation of families in which parental work obligations increasingly compete with children’s needs for parental time and energy. The conflict between job and family demands is especially acute for low-income parents, who often work in jobs that provide few family-support benefits. This scenario is shockingly common in the United States, where 44 percent of children live in low-income families and more than one child in five lives in poverty.

To date, much of the focus of research and advocacy in the states and nation has been on the benefits of paid family leave to business – including improved employee retention and job satisfaction – and workers’ rights, in particular, gender equity. A growing body of research, however, suggests that paid family leave also has beneficial effects on child and parental physical and emotional health. Yet, the child and maternal health outcomes of paid family leave are largely absent from the national policy debate.

This policy brief looks at the effects of maternal employment and parental leave policies on child health, child cognitive and emotional development, maternal health, and the health of parental relationships. It highlights compelling new arguments that strengthen the case for paid family leave, and includes a set of research-based recommendations to advance policy for this important social benefit.

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