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Paid Family Leave Is Finally Getting the Push it Deserves

Paid family leave leads to healthier families and happier marriages. It also helps the economy. And it seems the government is finally interested in pursuing it in a bipartisan manner.

This morning, the House Ways & Means Committee held a hearing on paid family leave. They heard from a number of advocates — including Kemi Role, the director of Work Equity at the National Employment Law Project and Vicki Shabo, the Senior Fellow for Paid Leave Policy and Strategy at New America. The hearing marks a milestone in the fight for paid parental leave — and the seriousness of which the government is interested in pursuing it in a bipartisan manner.

Currently, in the United States, about 60 percent of workers are covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) a 12-week unpaid leave program that allows employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave for family or medical reasons. Many advocates, however, argue that that’s not enough. For one, 40 percent of workers are left out. Perhaps more importantly, unpaid leave is not accessible to the 40 percent of American workers who live paycheck to paycheck or can’t afford an emergency expense of $400 or more. Beyond that, the repercussions of not having leave — because parents are often forced to leave the workforce entirely in order to care for their kids — has had massive effects on the economy. In the hearing, Shabo mentioned that the economy would be $500 billion stronger if paid family leave were offered to parents. 

Some states have stepped in to fill the gap. Virginia, Indiana, Tennessee, California, Washington, D.C., and a few other states have paid leave for their state employees, and city governments have done the same on a local level. But a federal paid leave program, like the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act first introduced in 2013 and subsequently and reintroduced in 2019 by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, would do far more to help families across the country of all socioeconomic backgrounds. The bill would provide up to 12 weeks of partial pay (up to $4,000 a month) for workers to take time off for the birth or adoption of their kid, or medical reasons. All workers are eligible for the plan, as it’s paid through a payroll contribution split between the employer and the worker. It would democratize a benefit that too often is only available to those who work middle class or upper-middle class, salaried work — and it would have profound benefits for the family unit, particularly on fathers.

The body of research on the benefits of family leave is substantial — and growing higher by the day. Just take a recent study published by the Cambridge University Press, which confirmed that when fathers are able to take parental or paternity leave after the birth of their child, they are more likely to have happier, more satisfying and equitable relationships with their partners and less likely to divorce later on. The study was a longitudinal look at more than 6,000 American families who had their children in 2001 and was restricted to two-parent families where dads were employed at the time of their kid’s birth and remained so after. The researchers — Daniel L. Carson, Christopher Knoester, and Richard J. Petts — took advantage of the existing longitudinal data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort, a government-led study from the National Center for Education Statistics, that checked in with leave-taking families when their child was 9 months old, four years old, and five or six years old. 

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What they found was astounding. Taking paternity leave of any length — one week, two weeks, or more than that — reduced the probability of what the researchers refer to as “union dissolution” (divorce) by 25 percent compared to fathers who don’t take leave. Taking just one week of leave reduces the risk of divorce by nearly 30 percent; taking two weeks increases that to 25 percent.

So why is leave associated with happier marriages? The researchers posit a few, somewhat obvious answers, namely that infant care is a tough job, and it’s especially tough when it’s just on one partner, usually the mom. Moms become stressed out and sleep-deprived when they are the primary parent. If moms return to work, both parents will struggle balancing work at work and work at home. These stresses are associated with undermining marital relationships. Unless dads are given access to parental leave, that stress will rely primarily on the mom, and prevent men from becoming engaged dads who can take care of their baby confidently and competently.

The researchers also point to the fact that women are most likely to break up with their partner — so having dad almost as, if not just as, involved in the early infant care of their newborn’s life, can increase feelings of relationship satisfaction, decrease stress, and allow both parents to feel like they are contributing to parenting. 

As the paid parental leave issue comes to the forefront of bipartisan policy making, it’s worth noting that even a short period of parental leave for dads (just two weeks) is associated with a significantly lower risk of divorce. Paternity leave is important not only because it helps dads become engaged fathers — but it also helps parents figure out how they want to divide household labor going forward. The benefits reverberate over years. Family stability is increased. Dads are engaged. Moms are less stressed out. 

The benefits are simply too great to ignore. In addition to the above, taking parental leave is associated with better health of child and parents, better life outcomes for the whole family, a longer life span for dads, and better earnings later on. It’s a relief to see a governmental body finally taking up the call to deal with it — even if it is seven years after the transformative, accessible version of the policy was initially proposed.