Is there any way to argue that the United States is not “failing its families”? The Human Rights Watch report on how the lack of paid family leave harms workers and children ( Failing Its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Support in the U.S. ) represents just one of the ways state and federal law neglects the needs of parents and children. There’s also inadequate health care (even post-reform), and schools that, with dismaying consistency country-wide, fail to educate the students who need it most. Finally, there is minimal child-care assistance for women whose jobs don’t provide the means to pay for good care.
But at a moment when everything from family planning to Head Start is under attack, federally mandated paid family leave, no matter what “productivity gains, reduced turnover costs, and health care savings” it might promise, feels like a bedtime story. In California and New Jersey (the only states with public paid family-leave insurance) and in more advanced countries, guaranteed paid leave is funded by employee tax contributions, other taxes, health insurance funds, or employer contributions. Nothing on that list is going to fly in any current legislative session. Human Rights Watch argues, rightly, that paid leave for new parents hasn’t “broken the bank” where it’s offered, both because of improved productivity and other savings and because it simply isn’t that expensive a benefit. It doesn’t matter. In the short run, it sounds expensive, and both our federal and state governments are nothing if not short-sighted.
This is tragic, because mandating paid family leave is exactly the kind of thing that the federal government, and only the federal government, should do. Individual states rightly hesitate at the prospect of putting their businesses at a disadvantage relative to businesses across state lines (and they’re even more reluctant to give businesses a reason to cross those lines). Employers, too, aren’t properly incentivized to voluntarily offer paid leave, particularly those who aren’t competing for a specialized workforce. Productivity gains and turnover savings are difficult to measure, particularly against higher per-employee costs that aren’t being paid by the factory, retail store, bank or medical lab down the road. Even harder to measure is the value to society of simply doing the right thing. All of society benefits when our youngest members are well cared for, and parents forced by economic necessity to return to work within days (or, in once case from the Human Rights Watch report, hours) of the arrival of a new child aren’t in a position to provide that care. The federal government is uniquely situated to put all states and businesses on a level playing field by mandating paid family leave. But at the moment, that argument and a quarter will buy you a condom-which is rapidly becoming the only family planning assistance or child care option many people can afford.