The United States’ Deplorable Parental Leave Policies Are Hurting Our Kids’ Futures
While wealthy parents pour more resources into their children’s futures, middle- and lower-income families are being squeezed, resulting in an education gap
Susan J. Douglas
After the carnivalesque Republican debates showcasing bombast like Donald Trump’s utterly preposterous “build a wall” idea, or Carly Fiorina’s shameful calls to defund Planned Parenthood, or Chris Christie and Rand Paul just screaming at each other, the Democratic debate provided a welcome zone of substance and sanity. Despite their differences, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton focused on a less sensational but crucially important issue: paid family leave. As Sanders put it, “Every other major country on Earth, every one, including some small countries, say that when a mother has a baby, she should stay home with that baby. … [It] is an international embarrassment that we do not provide paid family and medical leave.” Ditto for Clinton: “I want to do more to help us balance family and work [and] it’s about time we had paid family leave for American families and join the rest of the world.”
Read it and weep: A new study by the Russell Sage Foundation, “Too Many Children Left Behind,” compares the United States with three other Englishspeaking countries, and we come up far short. Australia offers new parents 18 weeks of paid leave, Canada offers a year, and the UK offers nine months. And us? We guarantee a paltry 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and only for government employees or people who have worked full-time for 20 weeks at companies with more than 50 workers. Estimates are that only about 12 percent of private-sector U.S. workers have access to paid leave.
The Sage study provides compelling data to support the need not only for paid family leave, but also for highquality early childhood education for all kids. Because the United States has the most stingy and retrograde family policies of any developed country, our children are not doing as well educationally as children elsewhere. In 2012, 15-year-olds in at least 22 countries, including Estonia, Slovenia, Vietnam and Latvia, had higher math scores than U.S. kids, based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Our results were only marginally better for science literacy. And our poor showing is based, in part, on significant socioeconomic differences among our children. As income inequality continues to soar in our country, it has a powerful and determining impact on kids who are not well-off, and thus on our collective future.
Their indifference to inequality aside, you’d think the GOP might care about this, given that, as The Atlantic reported, “PISA scores are an economic indicator: rising scores are a good sign that a country’s economy will grow as well.”
“Too Many Children Left Behind” provides compelling evidence that the achievement gap begins even before American children start kindergarten. The study found that “inequalities in children’s cognitive skills at school entry are significantly larger in the United States than they are in the other three countries,” in part because privileged children can go to high-quality preschool programs while others often cannot. This hurts children from poor families and exacerbates generational poverty. But the study also found that middleincome families are squeezed: Middle-income mothers typically work the longest hours, yet their wages have stagnated and they often can’t afford preschool, let alone private school. Meanwhile, wealthy families have been “investing a larger share of their resources in their children” in what the authors liken to an achievement “arms race.” So, American children from middle-income families have more in common with their poorer peers at school than their wealthier ones. Because the first five years of life are so crucial to cognitive and emotional development, these inequities can have lifelong consequences for these children, their financial well-being and for us as a society.
Much of this is a result of our government’s profound disengagement from supporting families and children. In particular, the study blames the lack of comprehensive workfamily policies, such as universal pre-K and paid sick leave. The resultant inequality of opportunity is “not inevitable.”
How can we remedy this? Institute paid family leave so all parents have time to nurture their children. Provide highquality preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Raise the minimum wage and increase tax credits for parents and the poor. This country is leaving way too many children behind — and it can do better
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.