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Paid Family Leave in America

Many never think about or consider the future of Paid Family Leave. Motherhood and building a family can seem so far away, or for others, not even of interest. However, the topic of paid family leave is of the utmost importance to many voters. Much media time is reserved for issues such as gun control, the economy and abortion but paid family leave is just as important to many American families.

The United States is one of only six countries in the entire world that offers no paid family leave. The existing federal policy on the matter is the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 which provides 12 weeks of unpaid family leave to new parents, those taking care of sick family or recovering from being ill themselves. This policy supposedly aims to protect workers from being fired or let go if they need to take time off for health reasons but it does not provide any financial support to these workers. Most countries in the world have at minimum four weeks of paid family leave with the average length being 29 weeks.

Research has established that there are many benefits to paid family leave across many categories including health and finance. Some of these benefits are more obvious than others. The very process of healing from birth takes at least six weeks. It is generally unsafe for women to return to work before they are finished recovering after birth yet US policy does not offer more than four weeks of unpaid leave for new mothers.

However, there are other, more often overlooked, considerations too. Research has found that paid family leave has positive impacts such as improved parental relationships between mothers and fathers, better postnatal mental health, more employment stability,and a reduced gender gap.

America’s weak position of family policy is not new; the US touts a long history of “underwhelming family policies.” This includes the lack of affordable childcare or universal preschool which puts added pressure on new parents. At this point, only nine states and the District of Columbia offer paid family leave.

The issue becomes even more significant when you consider the fact that the US has one of the highest maternal mortality rates across developed countries. Many women share stories of being asked back to work in the days following their birth and several have voiced concern over their struggles to choose between their health, the health of their infant and their paycheck. Some families do not need paid family leave – these people can afford to go many weeks without a paycheck. However, many others are forced to make risky decisions just to get by.

This policy does not exclusively affect new mothers and fathers and, thus, there also needs to be greater consideration of those taking care of elderly persons. Paid family leave could support about 44 million Americans who are responsible for providing care to an adult.

Many advocates of paid family leave in the US were excited at the prospect of it being included in the Democratic Party’s Build Back Better Plan. A bill that included four weeks of leave, albeit still significantly lower than the world average, passed in the House of Representatives. The Build Back Better bill then went on to collapse in the Senate. Democratic and Republican leadership alike contributed to the fall of this piece of legislation as paid family leave had enemies from both sides of the aisle. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia was notably against the price tag of a federal paid family leave program in the US.

As America continues to promote the idea of American exceptionalism, there remain some key questions about how exceptional the US can be if it cannot find a way to implement a policy that much of the rest of the world has done. With the benefits of paid family leave being so thoroughly proven and needed, what is keeping lawmakers from creating a solid plan? There is little evidence suggesting that the US is so unique in its structure and society that it is incapable of affording the populace a level of protection for doing something as natural and commonplace as having a child or taking care of an elderly relative.

There is another crucial factor to consider in the discussion of paid family leave policy. With the American system of federalism reserving powers to the state, what differences and inequalities could emerge between states that can afford to implement their own paid family leave programs and those that cannot? California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington all offer paid family leave. These are some of the states with the highest Gross Domestic Products (GDPs) and the smaller states like Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island tout the best healthcare systems in America.

Is there potential for other states to be left behind if no federal program is created? This is yet to be known. However, the problem could be contextualised in the ever-growing divisiveness between the two parties as paid family leave continues to be primarily championed by Democrats and passed over by Republicans.

The future of paid family leave in America is uncertain with the failure of the Build Back Better bill. In the meantime, American politicians will continue to claim that American exceptionalism is their reality while the people that call America home are making difficult choices between their families and their next paycheck.


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