Paid Family Leave: A Work Unfinished

I recently talked with Charles Bruner, Executive Director of the Early Childhood Policy Center in Des Moines, Iowa, a former state legislator, and one of the architects of the B.U.I.L.D. initiative, which mentors states in their efforts to design and implement comprehensive early learning systems that best serve the needs of young children and families.

“Families are complex things,” he told me.  “They don’t fit into regression equations very well. You’re building capacity, but its impact is not always visible.  You have to keep your eye on how… this relates back to the children and their families.”

What we do know is that the stresses faced by young children and families are increasing—exponentially.  In an early childhood needs assessment released last summer,  Bruner’s Policy Center documented a host of social and demographic trends affecting Iowa’s young children, including population growth, single parenting, poverty, parental education and workforce participation.  As the report points out: “The largest impacts on healthy development are ecological, that is relating to the home and community environment, and the consistency and quality of nurturing.”

As goes Iowa, so goes the nation?  Such trends are rampant, and our social policies, wholly inadequate.  From birth on up.  Did you know that the U.S. stands with Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland in its failure to offer paid family leave Here’s the lowdown, from a Spotlight on Poverty commentary, “Strengthening 21st Century Families: The Case for Paid Family Leave,” which I co-wrote with Curtis Skinner, director of Family Economic Security at the National Center for Children in Poverty (based on our longer report, released in September, 2012):

In most U.S. households, all adults are in the workforce, two-thirds of dual-earner couples work a combined total of more than 80 hours a week, and nearly 60 percent of women with children under the age of three work outside the home. These demographics starkly highlight the juggling act of contemporary parents, in which job demands increasingly compete with children’s need for care.

This conflict is especially acute for low-income parents, whose jobs offer few family-support benefits. In 2011, just five percent of private sector workers earning in the lowest quartile of wages reported access to employer-sponsored paid family leave. The highest ten percent of wage earners are six times more likely to have access to paid family leave than the lowest ten percent of wage earners.

In a nation where a staggering 44 percent of children live in low-income families and more than one child in five lives in poverty, the repercussions for family well-being and workforce productivity are serious and demand our attention.

Families were front and center earlier this month, as a host of policymakers and advocates marked the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Clinton, himself, penned an op-ed at Politico, touting the economic benefits of paid leave.  “The best antidote to poverty is simple—a paycheck.” noted former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin, author of The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family.

A heady, self-congratulatory time for all.  But we’re not done yet.

Just before the celebration, in the Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Last, author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, laments America’s falling fertility rate, and its consequences for the “sustainability of human capital.”   Among his solutions: “smart pronatalist policies,” including flattening the tax code, the elimination of universities as credential-making machines, and the improvement of the highway system and opportunities for telecommuting. Huh?  “If we want to continue leading the world,” he concludes, “we simply must figure out a way to have more babies.”  James Heckman’s clearly not on Mr. Last’s night stand.

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