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A Failure to Support Working Mothers: An Analysis of Maternity Leave Policies in the US

In the wake of the pandemic, women in the United States aren’t returning to the workplace at the same rate as their male counterparts. One report cites the lack of affordable and comprehensive childcare policies as the responsible factor, and the childcare sector is heading toward a financial cliff: the emergency government funding for childcare awarded through American Rescue Plan runs out this September.


While the failed Build Back Better Act included a groundbreaking, $400 billion universal childcare framework, the revised plan that ultimately passed—the Inflation Reduction Act—completely cut funding for child care programming. The move follows in the footsteps of the United States’ long history of deprioritizing mothers in the workplace.


Childcare, when it has been funded, has historically been approached as support for children living in poverty as opposed to support for women in the workplace. The first government program addressing childcare in the United States’ occurred in 1912, when Congress passed an act establishing the Children’s Bureau. At its inception, the Bureau sought to “investigate and report upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children.”


The Bureau promoted the ideas of widows’ and mothers’ pensions, which provided mothers with economic relief with the intent to enable mothers to stay home as caregivers. Essentially, the program was preventative rather than responsive, and it neglected the most vulnerable groups in need of support, as well as the need for childcare. Most people who received support still needed to work to support their families, and the programs often barred women of color and women deemed “morally unworthy.”


Emergency Nursery Schools established by the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal are especially notable as the first government funded schools for early childhood care. The focus on childcare, however, was somewhat inadvertent: the primary motivation for these schools was not childcare itself, but rather to create jobs for unemployed teachers. The Depression also saw the first introduction of cash welfare payments to families with children living in poverty through Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

During World War II, women entered the workforce at unprecedented rates, creating unprecedented demand for childcare. Despite women’s crucial role in the war and the intrinsic need for childcare that accompanied that role, public opinion still rejected the idea of working mothers. While efforts for local government funding of childcare in New York City, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and California were successful, efforts for federal childcare funding failed.


The next time childcare was addressed by the federal government was in 1954 and came in the form of a statutory tax deduction for child and dependent care expenses. It was later replaced with a tax credit in 1976, the Child and Dependent Care Tax credit. The tax deductions, while providing some form of economic relief to families, still failed to address the demand, supply, or quality of childcare.

In an echo of earlier commitment to pensions over childcare, the rest of the 20th century was plagued by the same issue: legislation that addressed childcare was relegated to operation through welfare programs and subsidies, rather than through the construction of systemic childcare programs. In the political discourse of the era, government-funded childcare’s detractors construed it as an attack on the nuclear family and traditional values.


President Nixon in 1971 vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have established development and daycare centers. While the bill was supposed to alleviate the welfare system, Nixon argued it would imitate a “communal approach to child rearing” and “weaken” families.


Welfare, too, faced eventual pushback from civilians and policy makers, who cast those receiving welfare—increasingly, minority families—as taking tax payer money instead of earning wages. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which ended AFDC. The Act instead instituted the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF allowed states to allocate welfare spending dollars to recipients and required recipients to work while receiving benefits, in addition to establishing a five year lifetime limit for recipients.


The early nineties also saw the federal government finally address maternity leave, the other policy issue fundamental to women’s working lives, through the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA entitles employees who meet certain criteria to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons whilst retaining the health insurance offered by their employer. The birth of a child merits up to twelve work weeks of time off within a twelve-month period.

However, only about 56% of the American workforce meets the FMLA eligibility criteria: employees must work at an agency with at least fifty employees within a seventy-five-mile radius; must have been employed by the company for at least one year; and must have completed at least 1,250 hours of work in that year.

While the passage of the FMLA was a milestone, its serious shortcomings leave millions of American parents without necessary coverage to recover from birth or care for their newborns. In the case of pregnancy complications, for example, parents would have to use time they’d allotted to recover after delivery. While a complication that necessitates bed rest, for example, would qualify as medical leave and childbirth and recovery as family leave, FMLA provides only for 12 weeks of time off across these types of leave.

Some states have supplemented FMLA with state programs or legislation. California, New Jersey, and Rhode island, for example, require private-sector companies to offer some form of paid leave. Many white-collar employers offer much more comprehensive maternity leave benefits, which could include paid leave or longer leave, among others.


According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, only about 19% of people have access to paid family leave, with Black and Hispanic women having significantly less access to paid leave either through their employer or state government programs than their white and Asian counterparts.


The issue remains that the most marginalized groups in the United States won’t receive adequate coverage: one shocking report indicated that 1 in 4 American women return to work after just two weeks.

The state of maternity leave and child care coverage is now against the backdrop of unprecedented rollbacks in reproductive care access. The May 2022 Dobbs ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, which had cemented the constitutional right to abortion, means that nearly one in three girls and women in America live in a state where abortion has been virtually outlawed.

One estimate predicts as many as 50,000 more births in the US as a result, which will most often be to socioeconomically disadvantaged people in states with the worst maternal and child health outcomes — the same people who are most impacted by the lack of maternity leave and childcare support.


The legal landscape of the US today makes it more pressing now than ever for parents to receive adequate maternity leave and childcare support. Not only will it uplift the standard of living for American citizens, but it will also promote gender parity in the workforce.


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