By now I’m sure many of you have read the heartrending account by a mother whose 3-month-old son died just hours after she had left him in a day-care center so that she could return to work.
The author freely acknowledges that “unexplained infant death is rare, and parental leave in the vast majority of cases is not an issue of life and death.” But driven by this great personal tragedy, the author is calling for policy change:
I am now asking: Why, why does a parent in this country have to sacrifice her job, her ability to provide her child with proper health care — or for many worse off than me, enough food to eat — to buy just a few more months to nurture a child past the point of vulnerability?
I wasn’t just up against the end of my parental leave. I was up against an entire culture that places very little value on caring for infants and small children. Parental leave reduces infant death, gives us healthier, more well-adjusted adults and helps women stay in the workforce. If we truly valued the 47 percent of the work force who are women, and the value of our families, things would look different. Mothers could go back to work after taking time off to recover physically from birth and bond with their young children.
As a father of one, I’m hardly the most experienced or qualified to join the debate, but I can speak from the experience of raising a child in a country with generous parental policies, so I’ll just sum up my position here: paid parental leave (and other family-friendly policies) is a tremendous blessing, though far from a panacea.
The first thing to note, as the author does, is that “there are plenty of good examples of how to create a national parental leave system that works.” In Europe, there are as many different models as there are countries. At the national level here in Austria, there are even five variants of paid parental leave one may choose from, and of course paid parental leave is just one of several family-friendly policies in place. So if one particular model you may have heard of or experienced seems incompatible with the American way of life, well, maybe it is, but policy options abound and maybe there are ideas out there that would be a better fit to America’s peculiarities.
Let me also underline that a paid parental leave policy does not solve all social ills, sometimes not even those it set out to address. In some cases, there may be a trade off between increasing fertility rates and achieving gender equality. In Austria’s case, both seem out of reach—women continue to bear the brunt of child rearing, suffer accordingly in their employment and remain unwilling to have more than about 1.5 children. Sweden’s policies, on the other hand, seem to have resulted in both greater gender equality and higher fertility; following a trough in the late 1990s, fertility rates are now on par with the US.
However, Austria’s family policies were introduced with the intent to protect the health of mothers and children and reduce the threat of slipping into poverty by having children, and in this regard they have been quite successful.
With regard to the health of the mother and child, a system of free pre- and postnatal care is tied to financial benefits to encourage compliance. For working mothers, a mandatory “maternity protection” period of at least eight weeks before the due date and eight weeks after the birth date (longer if necessary), paid for by statutory sickness insurance funds, ensures that even working mothers will be of work-related stress during the most vulnerable stages of human development while relieving employers of having to pay workers who may not work (as they must do for short periods of illness, for example). Parents may then choose among five parental leave options with a childcare allowance for a period ranging from 12+2 months (i.e., 12 months for one parent, two months for the other or just 12 months for one of them) up to 30+6 months. Employers may not terminate an employee on parental leave until the child is two years old, but neither are they required to pay the employee’s salary; the childcare allowance is drawn from a “Family Compensation Fund” and takes two forms: a lump sum paid out in equal installments for each month on leave (which means that those taking a longer leave are paid less per month) regardless of whether one was previously employed or a salary-based model of 80% of one’s previous salary, capped at EUR 2000/month, for one year. In addition, a “family allowance” is paid to one parent, by default the mother, from birth until the child reaches–get this–25 years of age! This benefit is likewise paid by the”Family Compensation Fund” independent of employment. On top of that, daycare/preschool is either provided by the province or subsidized if the parents choose a private organization.
Sorry for the thicket of details, but the upshot is that mothers and children in Austria are overwhelmingly healthy and well cared for regardless of the earning power of parents and spouses. This seems like a worthy public good, even if it comes at a cost. And it does; Austria has among the highest tax burden on labor income in the world (and far outpaces the US, just in case you felt a little burdened yourself). That can be a bitter pill to swallow, but after beholding first hands the fruits of a relatively well-managed social welfare state for ten years now, I believe that such is the good-value price of civilization.
So what do you think? Is parental leave (or other family-friendly policies) a public good worthy of public support? Or are the costs and benefits of family a private affair to be paid and realized as a function of individual pluck? Is there any chance of the US moving in the direction of the rest of the developed world? Is this something you’d welcome hearing about over the pulpit?