Paid Parental Leave Isn't Nearly Enough In a System Designed for Failure

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Paid parental leave is frequently held up as a panacea for women, a way to make it possible for mothers to stay in the workforce. But it’s not that simple. A new study found that the mothers who took state-provided paid family leave the first year it was available in California in fact ended up working less and making less money over time.

The New York Times reported on the findings, which have major implications for the way officials think about designing paid parental leave policies. California’s policy offers six weeks of disability leave for birth mothers, as well as six weeks of “bonding leave” for all parents—but only 15 percent of bonding leaves were taken by men, and even then they were very short on average. And there were unintended consequences for women:

In California, which in 2004 became the first state to offer paid family leave, new mothers who took it that year ended up working less and earning less a decade later. They averaged $24,000 in cumulative lost wages, it found.

“I could feel the air going out of the room when we presented this,” said Martha J. Bailey, an economist at the University of Michigan and one of four authors of the working paper. “This is not the way we teach this in economics textbooks.”

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There could be any number of things happening here that aren’t directly caused by the program: It’s possible that the group of women who took bonding leave essentially the minute it became available in California were already more inclined to dip out of the labor force, for one. (“A variety of research has found that this group was more likely to be older, high-earning, white and college educated than those who took leave after the program had been in effect for a while,” the Times noted.) The authors of the study stressed that their point is not that paid leave policies are bad—it’s that policy makers need to be very, very smart about how such programs are structured, including building in incentives for fathers to take leave, so that we don’t end up creating a structural incentive for women to do the bulk of childcare.

And then, of course, paid parental leave without robust offerings to help after the first few months really doesn’t get you very far, because you still have to parent within a system where parents are basically designed to fail. Even with great (by American standards) initial time off, you surface from the first few months to realize that your troubles are far from over. Most obvious are the childcare costs, which are more than college tuition in many states—if you can even find a place with an immediate opening within convenient commuting distance, much less a place that’s high quality. Otherwise, hope you’ve got a retired parent living nearby!

It might seem like you’re in the clear once you get to kindergarten (or possibly even later—some places still don’t offer full-day kindergarten). But then of course there’s the fact that school ends hours before the workday does and parents are obliged to arrange for after-school care. Don’t forget about summer, once a time of lazy sunny days and now an absolute logistical nightmare. Plus, let’s not forget all the random days that schools and daycares are closed but workplaces aren’t—I’m writing this blog to the dulcet sounds of screeching about markers, because it is Veteran’s Day—and of course the constant hum of wintertime illnesses that are just bad enough that the kid has to stay home, enough to put a serious dent in any paid sick or vacation days you might have. And then of course you’ll burn some more days for things like stomach bugs you pick up from your kid; if you’re lucky, they’ll be back in class before it strikes. All that’s with just one child.

Tl;dr: CVS can sell all the treacly Mother’s Day cards they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that America is not a family-friendly country.

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