This article is part of the Sacred-Public Partnerships series, published in collaboration with Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. The series explores the ways in which faith-based organizations – the sacred sector – and government partner for good. Sacred-Public Partnerships focuses specifically on the intersection of the sacred sector, religious freedom, and government-administered social safety net programs and explores why partnership between government and the sacred sector is essential to the success of social services in the United States.
BY MICHAEL NICHOLS
The birth of our first son happened while I was in the midst of seminary, so we were a single-income household. It was a season of sacrifice — for myself, my wife, my wife’s employer and even the state government — but it was simultaneously a season of deep joy, even abundance in certain respects.
In order to care for our son, I sacrificed a few hours of personal time each night to help feed, clean, and prepare meals, along with some extra time that otherwise would have been devoted to books. My wife sacrificed time pursuing her career and sacrificed her body to nurture and raise him (clearly an uneven deal). Friends, family, coworkers and neighbors all graciously donated time and resources: they cooked meals, bought diapers, donated old clothes, and availed themselves to us with abandon.
To create space and opportunity for our growing family to bond, my wife’s place of employment, a Christian K-12 school, had to go without her skills and contributions — a sacrifice they were happy to make, but a sacrifice nonetheless. The school wants to support families and recognizes the reciprocal relationship between healthy families and healthy work environments. So they encouraged her to take off the full 12 weeks that were available to her through the New Jersey’s paid family leave.1
Behind the scenes of our budding family was a network of institutions and policies making that growth possible. We were excited to have such extended time to adjust to new rhythms of life together, but it would likely have been impossible if not for New Jersey’s paid family leave. Our family could multiply and flourish because a government policy supplemented and supported the faith-based organization (FBO) my wife works for, allowing it to act in accordance with its values and also retain financial stability. The government and an FBO worked in concert to support a new family and help the FBO carry out its mission.
New Jersey provides family leave insurance for six weeks so families can bond with a newborn or adopted child.2 To qualify, an employee must have paid into the program (roughly $30/year) and earned a minimum of $8,600 over the past 12 months, in addition to having worked for at least 20 weeks. Should parents opt for the family leave benefits, they are paid directly every two weeks. Claimants can receive up to two-thirds of their average weekly wage, up to $650 per week. Short-term disability covers six weeks, then family leave insurance kicks in for the final six weeks. Some employers independently provide similar benefits as part of their employment package, so not all new parents need to participate in New Jersey’s program. In the case of faith-based nonprofits that generally cannot offer those kinds of benefits, the state of New Jersey fills in the gap, thereby supporting families and the organizations they work for.
The state of New Jersey was one of the first to pioneer state-funded family and medical leave. Only five other states, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington, plus Washington D.C., currently have enacted laws to offer paid family leave. These states each have unique specifications for family leave: who is eligible, requirements for receiving benefits, how the program is funded, duration of benefits coverage, etc. At the federal level, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees 12 weeks of job-protected leave for the birth of a child, but federal FMLA remains unpaid. FMLA also only impacts workers in workplaces with over 50 employees. Recently, federal lawmakers have begun drafting and proposing bills that would provide paid leave possibilities for new families.
Members of both political parties have expressed a commitment to paid family leave at the federal level, although the details of proposed plans vary significantly. These details go beyond the scope of this article. For more information on crafting paid family leave policies aligned with public justice principles, see the Time to Care Legislative Toolkit which aims to help Christians advocate for paid family leave in a principled way. It offers concrete tools, like sample letters and emails to public office-holders. In keeping with the Center for Public Justice’s philosophy of rooting policy work in Christian principles rather than narrow categories of right and left, the Guide offers six principles that should be part of any paid family leave policy.
In my family’s case, New Jersey provided significant help — both to us and to my wife’s employer. Her school does as much as possible to support families and to recognize employees are more than simply workers. They do this in various ways, like hosting prayer meetings and, when possible, inviting educational speakers for parents and school employees. My wife and her coworkers have lives outside of work; they belong to churches and maintain hobbies and have families, and her employer tries to respect this. But as a small organization, a faith-based nonprofit, with a relatively limited budget, they are not able to offer paid family leave. New Jersey’s paid family leave bridged the gap.
All parties benefited from this arrangement. Of course, our family was able to weave a new life into our fold and bond. My wife’s employer also benefited. They were able, with the help of the government, to support a family during a formative time, and live out their mission. New Jersey’s program freed them from excessive financial burdens and allowed them to conserve resources while remaining supportive. The state of New Jersey and broader society gain from the contributions my wife’s school makes (e.g., educated children, virtuous citizens, networks of support). And the state helps foster strong families that can nurture newborns in a healthy environment. This scenario nicely encapsulates what a well-functioning social safety net should look like: a group of people and institutions knitted together by various interests, each fulfilling a significant role so that humans can flourish. Our family relied on this social safety net, and so do many others.
The financial burdens of having a child can be startling and scary. The cost of medical bills, diapers, clothing, strollers, and cribs, not to mention steep daycare fees for those requiring childcare, add up quickly. As a single-income family, we felt the pressure of mounting costs. However, because of our strong social network and the safety net provided by the government, my wife was able to spend 12 weeks with our newborn without the added pressure of wondering if our bank account would last. We also had a strong social network of family, friends, peers, coworkers and church members who helped us immensely during this period. They donated clothes, play sets, meals and significant amounts of time.
Though the government safety net was integral to my family’s flourishing, our social network was also vital. Many other families often face the financial burden of new children, though with thinner social networks. In such cases, a cloud of anxiety can loom over what should be a bright season of great celebration. Finances get tight and the necessity of work imposes itself, abbreviating a critical time for family bonding. Paid family leave becomes all the more important and meaningful in these cases. It creates breathing room for families with lower incomes, and gives a chance to bond in those critical first weeks, a period to celebrate this momentous and joyful event. For those who work at faith-based organizations like daycares, churches, education nonprofits or other religious nonprofits, a policy like paid family leave can provide much needed aid. It briefly supplements income for those who have chosen careers that positively impact society and others, but which usually pay less. Moreover, paid family leave allows the organization to realize the goal of creating a family-supportive environment without consuming precious resources. In turn, the organization helps contribute to a vibrant and robust civil society.
The period after the birth of our child was an abundant season during which we welcomed and celebrated the new gift of life. We were afforded the ability to do so only because we were recipients of other goods: time, gifts, finances, and relationships. Various institutions—but specifically a faith-based organization and the state government—coordinated with one another to make that rich and joyful season possible. The beauty was that the abundance multiplied: each party sacrificed, but each party, our family, my wife’s employer, and the political community, ultimately received in turn. All benefitted by seeking the common good of right relationships. When institutions like these partner together and join forces to seek that common good, we can create conditions where all people in society can flourish.
Michael Nichols currently studies law at the University of Nebraska College of Law. He is a graduate of the University of Sioux Falls and Princeton Theological Seminary.
1. New Jersey provides birth mothers cash benefits for leave due to pregnancy complications or recovery from childbirth. The state also provides parents cash benefits for up to 6 weeks of family leave to bond with a new child. As of July 1, 2020, New Jersey , will provide12 weeks of family leave. At the time our child was born in 2018, my wife was eligible for six weeks of paid leave through temporary disability insurance to recover from childbirth, and an additional six weeks of family leave to bond with our son.
2. This policy will expand from six weeks to 12 weeks as of January 2020. This is in addition to the six weeks of short-term disability, so new mothers with an uncomplicated delivery may may qualify for 18 weeks of paid leave.
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