Fortune, June 15, 2018
As the birth of my first child neared earlier this year, I checked in with some of my friends who had been through this before. The one piece of advice I heard in common from all of them was, “Try and take a few days to spend with your partner and the baby.” Despite the widespread notion that dads don’t really take paternity leave, and when they do it’s only for a couple of days, I took the advice, and it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.
Paid family leave is a hugely popular policy that enjoys support across the political spectrum. The benefits to both parent and child are well-documented. But let’s face it: In the United States, any paid family leave at all is a luxury. Out of 41 industrialized nations, the United States is the only country that does not guarantee any paid parental leave.
Currently, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) mandates that employers allow workers to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave. While it is true that some employers act on their own and offer paid leave, the beneficiaries are usually moderately to highly paid workers. A whopping 94% of lower-income workers have no access to paid family leave at all. Taking time off of work with no pay to bond with a newborn poses a serious challenge to many families, with some mothers returning to work in a few days. In these families, unpaid paternity leave is not even a consideration.
However, there is a substantial push for paid family leave in the U.S., with some of the best policies coming from states and municipalities. As more and more city halls and statehouses respond to voters by signing paid leave legislation, the pressure mounts in Washington, D.C. for a comprehensive federal policy.
But as we think about paid parental leave, it is important that we consider the quality and impacts of the policies. That is particularly the case when looking at the most recent proposal championed by Ivanka Trump and Marco Rubio.
As described to the public so far, the policy will let new parents borrow from their Social Security down the road to pay for their parental leave now. In the long run, this could be a disaster for lower-income workers and people of color hoping to take leave. For people in lower-paying jobs, parental leave is just one of a long list of benefits not available to them, including retirement benefits. And for people without retirement benefits (primarily lower-paying jobs and people of color at higher rates than whites), Social Security is often the main source of income in retirement.
If one of these working parents did take advantage of the Ivanka-Rubio plan with one 12-week leave, according to one analysis, they would have to push back retirement by as much as 25 weeks. If they did the same for a second child, they couldn’t retire until they were almost 68. The irony is that people with these types of jobs often retire at 62 due to the physical nature of these jobs. As much as we need truly supportive family leave policies, the last thing we need is to have them come at the expense of future well-being in retirement.
Better alternatives, such as the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act) would be a big help to families — particularly lower-income working people — without compromising other crucial supports. For instance, under the FAMILY Act, employees and employers would pay a small amount from each paycheck into an insurance fund to pay for leave. Once implemented, these types of social insurance policies have little to no negative impacts on employers. Such policies can also increase employment for women, adding a boost to the economy. The same is true for paternity leave as well, with evidence showing that fathers who take two or more weeks of leave are more involved in day-to-day childcare nine months after birth and later in life than fathers who do not. Paid paternity leave policies may also be a factor in the retention of highly skilled workers.
Paternity leave is also good for both new parents. In my own experience with an extended paid leave, I feel that I began to develop a deeper bond—and sooner—than I would have if I had gone back to full-time work after a couple of days. My paternity leave also allowed me to be a better co-parent with my wife, to share some of the responsibilities, difficulties, and of course the many, many joys of being a new parent. So when we think of all the dads in our lives this Father’s Day, remember that a national paid family leave policy is one of the best gifts we could give.