Reimagining Paid Family Leave Policies

When then New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy chose to miss the first two games of the 2014 season his decision was met with some criticism. Murphy’s reason? The birth of his first child. When their son was born an hour before the Mets’ opener, Murphy and his wife thought it best he wait a couple days before returning to baseball. The Mets lost both games without Murphy, but a year later he would lead the team to their first World Series since 2000, cleansing past ills. However, it’s worth asking why anyone would get upset with a baseball player for missing two of the — yes — 162 games in a Major League season? It seems irrational, and that’s because it is. Criticism of Murphy highlights a common but unfortunate misunderstanding of the importance of parents and children.

It’s important these conversations about family leave stand on some common ground about parenthood, and the needs of young children. Parent and child are joined in the family, life’s most basic institution, where we commune as each other’s bone of bone, and flesh of flesh. The family is where we learn to live out Christ’s second commandment (Mark 12:31), as both parents and children, leaders and servants.

One of the purposes of public justice is to support institutions, such as families, toward the greater flourishing of their God-ordained role.  Public justice calls employers, churches, and other nonprofits to support families in their critical role, particularly the call to rear small children.

The need we each have for a family is pronounced, but particularly so for young children. In their formative state, the early years of a child’s life are the most vital for brain development, as a baby’s brain is about 80 percent of its adult size by the age of three. It’s especially important for families to invest in the social, cognitive, and virtue development of their children in these early years. As citizens concerned about public justice, one obvious way to engage this task is to support working parents with policies of paid family leave.

It falls within the responsibilities of government to support policies that respect the inherent dignity of families.

The United States is one among only a handful of nations to not offer any form of federal, paid family leave. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides 12-weeks of unpaid leave, as of 2012 just over half (59%) of all workers were eligible, and at that, most can’t afford to take unpaid leave. There are various reasons why the United States does not currently have a federally funded paid family leave program, and some states have instituted their own policies, such as California.

In 2013, 58 percent of American mothers with infants under a year old were employed, slightly more than the average rate of 53 percent among studied countries. Working frequent hours in the first year of a child’s life often obstructs the positive effect mothers can have on a child’s cognitive development. Research points to the significance of parental involvement in the critical early year, when a child is given the opportunity to either get ahead or fall behind.

The stress of work-life balance is felt by most parents of young children, but perhaps most dramatically felt by low-income parents. Too many low-income parents don’t have a real option- they can’t afford to quit their job or to take unpaid leave, to stay home with their newborn. In this situation, business is interfering with the role of the family, taking new mothers in particular away from their children far sooner than should be. In envisioning ways to ensure that new parents can stay home with newborn for at least four to six weeks, without having to quit their jobs, it’s worth asking whether forms of paid family leave elsewhere have seen positive results for family and children?

When Canada extended its family leave policies to 52 weeks of leave - of which 15 are paid - eligible mothers took on average an extra three months of work leave. Similarly, Canada saw a one month increase in the length of breastfeeding for eligible mothers. As recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, breastfeeding should extend to at least the 12th month of an infant’s life. Despite this, the U.S. federal government reports that in 2011 only 27 percent of children were being breastfed at 12 months. Canada’s portion of family leave that’s paid - covering 55 percent of the parent’s wages - is to be stressed. One of the most common reasons for an American mother to not take extended leave when otherwise seems necessary is because the family cannot afford it. Although there remain many reasons why a mother may not breastfeed her child for a full 12 months, inadequate family leave policies should not be one.

With this in mind, it falls within the responsibilities of government to support policies that respect the inherent dignity of families.

Set upon this, government should affirm the family as a vital social institution in itself. The family is a properly basic pillar of social health as mandated by God. Paid family leave is an important issue, but should not be considered in isolation from other government policies and programs that support families and help them fulfill their right role of nurturing children. To better support parents and engage civil society, the federal government should continue to fund forms of prenatal care that support and affirm the role of parents, programs such as the Nurse Family Partnership, while also expanding the current Child Tax Credit in support of low-income families more broadly. Although child-care programs are not the end solution, nonprofits such as churches should be well supported by the government in attempts to provide subsidized child care to poor mothers and fathers. Taken together, these other policies complement paid family leave and help empower parents to fulfill their responsibilities within their families.

Current government policies do not adequately support families with young children. The United States needs to strengthen families through paid leave surrounding the birth of a child. Inasmuch as supporting these families is the responsibility of all citizens, it’s for us to consider what prudential family leave policies can be enacted in America today.

-Jeffrey McKay is a student at Gordon College studying Political Science