Monday, March 13, 2017

Why not support paid parental leave?

On Facebook I've been participating in a discussion about paid maternity leave. As you may already know, America is the only industrialized nation that does not provide any paid parental leave. The average paid leave among industrialized nations is 17 weeks; in America, you can, if you work for a large enough employer, take up to twelve weeks off after you give birth--but apart from any vacation time you may have saved up that leave will be unpaid.

It should be fairly obvious that the mothers who suffer most from a total lack of paid maternity leave are those who are the least well-off economically. A relatively wealthy two-income family may be able to arrange to do without the mother's income for some or all of the twelve unpaid weeks mandated by law, but a two-income family with less total income may find that any loss of income at all puts them in danger of being unable to pay their bills. 

Since Catholics reject the idea that only rich families should have children, or that children are optional lifestyle accessories for those few married couples capable of bearing, unaided, all the expenses involved in raising and educating those children, it seems to me that Catholics should support paid maternity leave at the very least, and paid parental leave as a just way to ensure that even stay-at-home moms can count on their husbands' presence and support for at least some of the time after baby comes home from the hospital--important enough in ordinary circumstances, but crucial in situations where there were birth complications, where the child ends up in the NICU for a while, and even when there are already children at home who need Dad to help care for them while mom recovers from childbirth.

So I always find it surprising when Catholics do not support these ideas, and raise various objections to them. Sometimes the objections are nakedly partisan: the Other Side supports paid parental leave, so we must oppose it. Those arguments aren't worth addressing.

But when the objections are more specific it is worthwhile to address them, and in the rest of this post I will make a preliminary attempt to do so.

First objection: We can't afford paid parental leave. Who would pay for it, and how would it be done?

Answer: Countries far less wealthy than America manage to have paid parental leave. By many estimates, six weeks of paid leave would require no more than an annual payroll deduction of about $30--that's annual, note, not monthly. Even if we doubled that to 12 weeks of paid parental leave we would be looking at $60 a year, or $5 a month, or $2.50 a paycheck. This amount would hardly be noticeable among other payroll deductions such as those for Social Security and Medicare.

Second objection: Paid parental leave will cost employers too much, and will raise the price of goods and services.

Answer: See above; also, not offering paid leave has costs, too. When women return to work too soon after giving birth both they and their newborns are more at risk for various health complications, some of them quite expensive. Women still dealing with normal postpartum issues may, understandably, be less productive at work as well.

Third objection: If it is too difficult for women to work after giving birth, they should just quit their jobs and become stay-at-home moms. Second incomes are for luxury expenses, not necessities.

Answer: While most of us Catholics fully support stay-at-home moms and agree that not all dual-income households actually need both incomes, the reality is that since the 1970s the number of two-income households have risen to the point where in some parts of the country it may be difficult to impossible to live on a single income. Wage stagnation, the rising costs of housing, transportation, and health care, and the huge and growing problem of crushing student loan debt has created a situation which traps many young couples into relying on two incomes. Ideally any family who wants one parent to stay at home with the children should be encouraged and supported to do so, but the notion that all women who work outside the home can just quit and stay home instead of needing parental leave after a baby is born ignores the situation we have now. 

Fourth objection (and, yes, this really was said): women in the past didn't need paid maternity leave, so why do women need it now?

Answer: obviously, the majority of women in the past rarely worked outside the home following the birth of their children. Not only did this negate the necessity for paid maternity leave, but also women had a network of support from other women in those early days following the birth of their children: their mothers, sisters, unmarried aunts or cousins, neighbors and friends became a pool of help and aid for a mom with a newborn. Today, nearly 70% of women older than 16 work outside the home, which means that the stay-at-home mom may not be able to call on her mother or aunt or sister to come and help her once baby arrives. Those of us who were lucky enough to have family willing to sacrifice some time after the arrival of our children are certainly grateful for that blessing, but there are many women who have no such available relatives or friends and who are also facing the necessity to return to work relatively quickly after their child is born.

The reality is that we can't just say we care about families, about mothers and fathers and children, without carefully considering the real need for at least some paid parental leave for an event as life-changing as the birth of a child. Even six weeks of paid leave would be important time for healing and recovery and for bonding with the new baby. Families need this--so why not support it?