Bloomberg News has just completed an investigation into the plight of working mothers in America, and it’s not a pretty picture. Only 12 percent of those employed get paid time off to care for a new baby, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics. Only three states have programs offering paid family leave—California, since 2004; New Jersey, since 2009; and, as of last month, Rhode Island.
“Papua New Guinea is the only other nation that doesn’t provide or require a paid maternity leave, according to information on 185 countries compiled by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization,” Bloomberg reports. “It recommends 14 weeks off at a level no lower than two-thirds of previous earnings.”
Those who pay attention to the work-family debate have been aware of this for a long time. What is startling is how stubbornly it remains a non-issue in policy circles; even with increasing numbers of women now serving in Congress—20 in the Senate and 78 in the House, the highest ever—legislation that tries to address the current inadequate pregnancy and family policies is largely absent.
Currently, the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was passed in 1993, guarantees workers at companies with 50 or more employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave. The problem is that many people can’t afford to take it. Larger companies tend to offer more generous benefits, which have been shown to correlate strongly with an increase in women returning to their jobs after having a child. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill last month modeled on the family leave policies in California, which are the most generous in the country. It would guarantee at least some pay to employees for up to 12 weeks of family leave—an improvement, but still not enough. The bill proposes to finance itself through a 0.2 percent payroll tax, which is opposed by business groups.
What continues to be missing from the conversation is men. As Bloomberg Businessweek reported last spring, working dads want to spend time with their children, too, and larger numbers are taking paternity leave when it’s offered. Fifty percent of working fathers find it difficult to balance their jobs with their family demands, according to a 2013 Pew study, and 71 percent of men say that they’d be willing to make less money in exchange for more time at home, according to the Radcliffe Public Policy Center.
“Why do we continue to focus on this as a women’s issue, when the evidence makes it so clear that it’s shared by men?” Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University who studies families and asked in conversation with me last spring. “The irony is there is some research that suggests men feel more conflict and have a greater desire for balance than women.”