The U.S. Is Decades Behind the World on Paid Leave

This puts us in a great position.

Two dads at home with their baby.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Caiaimage/Tom Merton/Getty Images.

Taking Leave is a Better Life Lab series marking the 25th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Twenty-five years after the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act—our country’s national unpaid leave policy—there is growing consensus across the political spectrum that the United States needs paid leave. Now the details of how to do this matter more than ever.

Some look wistfully at European countries that, from a distance, seem like family-friendly, feminist paradises. Places like Sweden, Germany, and France provide many months—even years—of paid maternity leave, child care options, and other supportive policies. Studies from countries like these show why it’s important to bring the United States up to speed: Paid leave is associated with reduced infant mortality, improved child and maternal health, and higher labor force participation for women, which equates to high family incomes and growth in the economy as a whole.

By comparison, the U.S.’s FMLA only provides unpaid leave, only covers an estimated 60 percent of the workforce, and disproportionately excludes working parents, particularly Latinos. The lack of family-friendly policies impedes women’s equality, strains the health and finances of working families, and holds back the U.S. economy.

While many advocates highlight the U.S.’s lagging position in the world as nearly the only country with no national paid leave policy, this position also comes with an advantage. By evaluating long-established policies in Europe and elsewhere, we can improve upon existing models to do even better than Europe and other nations that do offer paid leave.

Details vary, but national paid leave policies tend to follow two paths that both end in women being at a disadvantage in the workplace.

When it comes to heterosexual couples, many countries provide a substantial amount of paid leave for new mothers, but little to none for new fathers. This reinforces inequitable norms—women are still much more likely to leave their jobs for caregiving, which can put their careers and incomes at a disadvantage—and harmful stereotypes. For example, employers are more likely to discriminate against young women applying for jobs than young men because they perceive women as less committed to their careers.

Other countries don’t formally distinguish between parents by gender, instead tying leave to the birth or adoption of a new child. On paper, these seem like gender-neutral policies, but in practice, cultural norms and policy design mean heterosexual couples are likely to default to having mothers take most or all of the leave. Some countries, like Iceland and Sweden, have tweaked their policies to correct this bias, but it has been slow going.

With the opportunity to start almost from scratch in the United States, policymakers do not have to build an exclusionary paid maternity leave program, and instead should look to the standards already established by the FMLA, which covers a broad range of caregiving relationships.

There’s another major flaw with many approaches to paid leave around the world. Many European family leave policies are influenced by an ideology that has been mostly absent in the United States in recent decades: pronatalism—the belief that a country needs to raise its birthrate.

In their most extreme form, pronatalist views undergirded policies like socialist Romania’s almost-total ban on abortion, which involved invasive medical examinations of women, caused tremendous harm to women’s and children’s health, and inspired the fictional Handmaid’s Tale. In less coercive forms, pronatalism also motivated the French system of paid leave and postnatal care and Russia’s “maternity capital” program.

Clearly, the United States should avoid a coercive pronatalist policy: It’s antithetical to human rights and freedom. But even less coercive pronatalism is problematic, in particular because in any society with a history of racism, the question of whether people should have more children is nearly always intertwined with racist debates over whose children are desirable.

Demographers in socialist Romania, for example, targeted the Roma ethnic minority for supposedly having too high a birthrate. Likewise, racist, eugenicist arguments about birthrates were mainstream in the United States through the first half of the 20th century. For example, President Theodore Roosevelt promoted the idea that white women using contraception would lead to “race suicide.” Such views are resurfacing in European politics, for example in racist ads—designed by an American agency—run in last year’s German election with the slogan “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.”

With white supremacists in the U.S. literally on the march again, this racist history of pronatalism bears remembering. Paid leave supporters can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past by keeping the debate about family friendly workplace policies focused on gender equality, the health and economic benefits of sound policies, and the universal and growing need for caregiving, rather than on trying to change or coerce people’s reproductive decisions.

Prioritizing equality and care is about more than rhetoric. In fact, current U.S. leave policies (the FMLA at the federal level, as well as paid leave programs in five states and D.C.) actually enact these values through policy design by covering not only gender-neutral parental leave but also family caregiving and personal medical leave.

As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg meticulously laid out in her Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals dissent, the origin of this comprehensive scope in the FMLA was a deliberate decision by members of Congress to help ensure the law would reduce gender-based job discrimination:

Over the course of eight years, Congress considered the problem of workplace discrimination against women, and devised the FMLA to reduce sex-based inequalities in leave programs. Essential to its design, Congress assiduously avoided a legislative package that, overall, was or would be seen as geared to women only. Congress thereby reduced employers’ incentives to prefer men over women, advanced women’s economic opportunities, and laid the foundation for a more egalitarian relationship at home and at work. The self-care provision is a key part of that endeavor.

In fact, data on FMLA use show that women and men are close to parity in overall leave taking precisely because it includes self-care as well as family caregiving. By contrast, across OECD countries, fathers account for less than one in five parental leaves.

The United States lags far behind other countries in offering family-friendly workplace policies, with serious consequences for women and families. But instead of merely catching up, we have an opportunity to become an international leader by designing a national paid leave policy that incorporates America’s already established, evidence-based standards for family policies. These policies can promote diversity, equality, and care in ways other countries haven’t.