Speaking of the well-being of children…

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?


  1. It has always boggled my mind that the Church seems to put no effort towards the implementation of family-friendly policies. The Church’s claims that family is the focus of everything ring hollow when their rhetoric focuses only on tearing down the families of others as “counterfeit,” rather than building up and strengthening existing families. Of all the political issues to get involved in, why Prop 8 and not this?

  2. I can just hear all the Skousenites already: “Incipient Comm’nism! You’ll make us weak and dependent like a bunch of Godless Europeans!”

  3. The “thicket of details” is exactly what this discussion needs. The general idea is “family-friendly” but many of the proposed implementations are not.

  4. A Non-E Mous says:

    You know what’s not family friendly? The increased unemployment or offset in wages as a result of paid parental leave policies.

  5. Indeed, the devil is, as ever, in the details. And unintended consequences will accompany any policy.

  6. I’m just glad we are no longer discussing the handbook changes and have moved on to something with which we can all find more agreement: politics. /sarcasm

    I think this topic is an important one and I appreciate the effort to create a discussion around it.

  7. I lived in Sweden as a parent for eight years. Sweden has extremely high taxes, and day-care which is heavily subsidized (90%). The generous parental leave, 480 days, has the effect that there are no babies in day-care. However, the system also does not allow filing taxes jointly. The results we see are 85-90% of all children over the age of 1-1,5 years are enrolled in day-care or preschool. Attachment between parents and children is suffering, which we see in declining mental health of the youth, dropping school results in PISA studies, etc. Plus an enormous pressure to conform to the norm. Stay at home parents are few and suffer discrimination and loneliness, the families are not strong. It is my conviction that government is better off without meddling with how young children are raised. A plethora of options is better than the narrowly defined way of life the socialists have prescribed, but ultimately the high taxes limit families’ self-government and independence.

  8. Tragic story, that has as much to do with risk assessment gone awry (or perhaps the awry aspect of risk assessment we all hope to avoid). I’m sure that parent, if they were told over and over again by society that they should stay home for another 3 more months, go into debt in the meantime, and their baby would be better off, they would do it. Because they didn’t understand the risk (or possess the ability to predict the future) based on a modern philosophy that says it’s ok to leave the children soon because most people don’t readily see the negative impacts of those actions, they hoped for the best.

    In the case of the latter, it would seem we have society and cultural attitudes about raising young children while still working to blame, as we do with forcing employers (ie. coworkers and customers) to pay for parental leave.

    Paid parental leave results in lower wages for all workers. As long as we are upfront about that, and don’t pretend it’s not so, I’m ok with it. So the only way I would be in favor of instituting a new policy such as this in a free society is if we added it as a payroll line-item tax that was clearly transparent. 0.05% of each pay check taxed to cover the leave for instance.

    An even better version of paid parental leave would be a loan program to allow families to borrow money and pay it back. This shifts the burden from employer (or fellow employees) to the costs of consumption actually being paid by the family.

    Of course, it’s just as rational to say creating future tax payers are much more valuable monetarily to a society than most individuals who don’t procreate. So maybe we should have policies that privilege traditional marriage and childbirth.

  9. Paid parental leave results in lower wages for all workers. As long as we are upfront about that, and don’t pretend it’s not so, I’m ok with it.

    I agree that it’s important to be as transparent as possible about the costs and implications of new policies–there’s no free lunch, after all. But even if a paid parental leave policy depressed wages relative to before its implementation, that doesn’t doom a country or its laboring population to stagnation. In Germany’s case, for example, a maternity protection policy has been in place since Bismarck, and Austria’s policy predates its postwar economic miracle as well. These policies have become progressively more generous, so perhaps starting out with a fully-fledged Western European system would be an economic disaster in the United States. But it could still be an aspiration.

  10. I agree with ElinorePetersen. I also lived in Sweden for many years from 2002 to 2008. I found many women who longed to be home with their children, but were unable to. The social pressure to conform was enormous. I was constantly criticized by doctors and other professionals for keeping my children out of the system.

    The greatest irony for me was seeing the number of women who would drop their kids off at daycare and then go work in a daycare themselves.

    That said, I understand the absolute need for childcare for single and working parents. If you are a working mom, Sweden is very much a paradise. But the opposite is true for those who wish to stay at home with their children.

  11. What about the rights of people who are childless, or whose children are no longer in daycare? Is it really equitable for someone who chooses not to have children to have such a chunk of their paycheck deducted for the benefit of other peoples children? It may work well in countries where couples have only one child, but in the US many families have 4 or more children. In a free society everyone pays their own way, and if they can’t, then it used to be that charities would supplement what income the less fortunate have for their disposal.

  12. Linda–whose children are going to care for the childless in their old age? Build their houses? Wait on them at restaurants? Pay social security taxes? The fact is that children benefit everyone, not just their parents. It’s foolish and shortsighted to think that one should only care for one’s own.

  13. Clark Goble says:

    I agree with others it’s really hard to debate without talking details of implementation. We should also note that the economic makeup in the US is simply different than Europe as is the culture. We can’t just take a European policy and assume it’d have the same consequences here. Even within Europe there are unintended consequences. So for instance many Americans praise France and France looks pretty fantastic if you are one of the lucky ones to get a job in the middle class. Yet for the young it sucks with an unemployment rate of 26.2%. The regular unemployment rate is 10.5% and the lowest it’s been in recent history is 2008 when it was 7.4%. They also have whole communities relatively locked out of the good life with associated social costs.

    I’m not saying we don’t have our own economic challenges here in the States. Heaven knows we have communities locked out of much hope of upward economic progress. But the big problem right now is the huge divide between fairly well educated and skilled workers and everyone else. I’m sure the college educated crowd could easily take parental leave and they’d be fine. But what would be the costs for the unskilled or lesser skilled workers who are already being priced out of the market? Almost certainly it would produce more of a shift to 1099 type workers and contractors. Laws are being developed to try and stop that as much as possible, but the reality is that paying workers for family leave is effectively a huge raise. If one does unpaid leave then you really haven’t helped most families because they can’t afford not to work.

    I really think we should have more family friendly policies. But I tend to think most people look at this through the lens of the college educated. The money has to come from somewhere and most likely it’ll come from workers.

    Again, I and most Americans are for leave in the abstract. It’s figuring out good policies that’s the trick. (According to one poll 96% of democrats and 73% of republicans favor the idea in abstract)

  14. I lived in Sweden for a time with two small children, and while we were not there long enough to qualify for the benefits of child care, maternity/paternity leave, the general practices that encourage family health and togetherness really stuck with me. It was amazing to see the way my Swedish friends who were parents viewed equality in parenting, and I think it resulted in more confident, happy women in the workforce and more happy, confident men as caretakers, and thus more happy, confident children. I would so love to see more value placed on the time before and after a baby is born. I live in a fast-paced environment where many fathers have had to go back to work the day after a baby is born, and then the mother not long after. That is so sad on so many levels. I would love to talk about this in a church setting. In a setting where we put so much value on parenting, it seems our discussion of it could be useful.

  15. Personally I think we could make more headway on this by focusing on paternal leave and maternal leave would be increased by default. Unfortunately most articles focus on maternal leave and throw in paternal leave as an afterthought. Maybe manipulating patriarchal culture to your advantage would work out.

  16. I used to visit an alternative high school where an on-site child care center tends the children of teenage mothers so they can attend classes and graduate. That’s a step in the right direction.

    How about huge expansions of apprenticeship opportunities to give young people experience in diverse jobs as alternatives to schooling; ceasing to require high school diplomas or GEDs as prerequisites for employment (replacing them with job-specific exams if appropriate, and even the professions should be more concerned about the candidate’s performance in self-chosen training than in forced schooling); universal maternity and paternity leave; welcoming of small children in and around more workplaces; and an economic norm of localized small cooperative enterprises?

    The threat of single motherhood, failure in a monopolistic track of academic success which shapes your work future, and a life of poverty for you and your bastards are cherished social weapons. If they can’t be used to control your behavior, what can? In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church couldn’t tolerate heretics getting away with their heresy: they had to make the fires of hell real or lose control over people’s lives. Thank God that as the Enlightenment has had its way, churches’ control over people’s lives has indeed decreased dramatically. But in designing policies “to protect the family” do today’s authorities really try to clear the way for children grow with love, or do they try to make a supernatural punishment real on earth?

  17. I am a big supporter of parental leave. In Canada there is 8.5 months of parental leave, and an additional 2.5 months ot maternity leave. The 8.5 can be split between the two parents as they determine, including the possibility of taking it in two pieces.

    My wife has been home with a children since the last trimester of her first pregnancy (twins). We lived in the US at the time and she received no maternity leave, nor did I have any parental leave.

    With our last two children, I took all 8.5 months of parental leave to be home with my new child, my wife and other children.

    In Canada, the support comes through the Employment Insurance program, with some employers topping up some of the difference.

    And while my primary reason for taking the amount of leave I did was personal (and it was wonderful for the whole family), I did feel it was important as a father to take the available leave, to give action to my belief that father’s can and should be active committed parents in raising their children.

  18. As with many problems, this could easily be solved by stripping capitalists of their obscene wealth. Who actually needs a billion dollars to live comfortably? Heck, who needs more than a few million? 100% tax on all capital gains and income above a certain amount, and we’d have more than enough money to eliminate poverty and homeless, allow parents to raise their children, and provide good education for everyone.

    Sadly, this country serves Mammon rather than Jesus. Wealthy man, camel, eye of needle, anyone?

  19. John Mansfield says:

    The post above notes that the various European nations have a variety of approaches to government support of families. The United States government and those of the individual states also spend a lot on such things. Some may prefer one approach or another and have reasons to think one better, but it is hardly the case that the United States does nothing. In FY14, $15 billion supported families through TANF, and $60 billion was distributed to families through EITC in FY13. The affect of these transfers and others is such that CBO reported for 2009 that those in the middle quintile received $10,400 per household, compared with their market income of $54,200 per household. There are also reductions in tax liability for families—the child tax credit, the childcare tax credit, dependent exemptions from income—that reduce a family’s spending on taxes by several thousands of dollars. Last time I worked it out a few years ago, a family with three children owes no federal income tax until it brings in over $53,750. It’s been a bit of a shock as my oldest children have left the home and my tax holiday ends, even though I knew it would happen.

    PeterLLC expresses a desire for the United States to manage matters more in the manner of other countries, but it’s not the case that the US doesn’t for the most part take care of its families, with a large provision and shifting of government money as part of that care.

  20. Clark Goble says:

    Coriander, while I’m very sympathetic to such programs, they also have unintended consequences when teen mothers attend high school pregnant or even with their babies. Girls with low self esteem or other issues can think its a way to get attention or feel more love increasing the teen birth rate. I’m not saying that day care isn’t important but things are complex. Further many schools are already under tight budges and paying for day care adds to that quite a bit.

    Of course the biggest cause of teen pregnancy is poverty. If we can improve job opportunities especially for people living in communities with long term poverty we’ll solve a whole slew of problems. I’m strongly of the opinion that labor fluidity is one of the best solutions for that. Too many people get trapped in a geographic location where there is little hope of good employment and little diversity among peers.

    Good jobs are arguably the best long term solution for families although that says nothing about short term fixes. (Obviously we can’t merely worry about the long term alone)

    John, your oldest have already moved away? Man I feel old. My oldest is just 11 and it’s hard to wrap my mind around my friends from my 20’s having kids on missions and in college.

    I do agree with your point that people sometimes forget the US is doing a lot. Whether it is enough is an other matter. I think people tend to ignore what the costs of paid leave would be if done by the government. (And arguably an unfunded mandate is just a hidden tax) For instance the recent bill proposed by some democrats includes a 0.2% flat tax on all wages. Yet that honestly seems insufficient to pay for the leave costs if it is made us of regularly.

    For a rough back of the envelop calculation there are about 4 million births per year. If on average each birth costs $50,000 in leave costs (given median household income of $50,000) that’s 200 billion per year. Even assuming a most births are by young who have far less income at best that cuts the figure in half. (We’ll ignore those who don’t use the service due to job pressure for the moment) To put that into picture the military budget (which I think is too high) is around 600 billion. Using the median household figure a 0.2% tax would raise 12 billion dollars — far less than the 200 billion needed. (Again I recognize they are assuming low usage)

  21. The effect of these transfers and others is such that CBO reported for 2009 that those in the middle quintile received $10,400 per household, compared with their market income of $54,200 per household. There are also reductions in tax liability for families—the child tax credit, the childcare tax credit, dependent exemptions from income—that reduce a family’s spending on taxes by several thousands of dollars.

    Thank you for raising the excellent point that American families are already being subsidized to the tune of billions per year. It doesn’t explain why expanding benefits to include paid parental leave is such a non-starter in US policy circles nor why infant mortality in the US remains above the OECD average, although it may say something about how taxpayers prefer to receive their entitlements and that socioeconomic barriers to health care–above average costs and below average insurance coverage–are not addressed by the transfers.

  22. I agree with Clark Goble about unintended consequences and that what needs to be debated are the details rather than the philosophy. For example, as the US lost manufacturing jobs, there’s been a bigger emphasis on college educations and government-guaranteed student loans were made widely available. Lots of people could go to college, but it created a distortion in the market. University costs jumped dramatically to absorb the extra money and we have a surplus of graduates with less marketable degrees and enormous debt loads. The objective was accomplished (at least partially), but the results aren’t entirely positive. There really isn’t much debate about whether having a better-educated workforce is a good national objective. The debate would be about how to do it.

  23. For a rough back of the envelop calculation…

    The paid part of the Austrian parental leave model is (mostly) funded by a 4.5% tax on wages. I don’t have recent numbers at hand, but it ends up being around EUR 5 billion. Once that’s taken care of, an employer has no further obligations. Also, paid leave was historically not intended to be a wage replacement program, although a few years ago an income-based variant (80% of one’s income but capped at EUR 2000/month for a maximum of 14 months) was introduced to inspire more fathers to take leave. This is by far the least common variant; most opt for the flat rate variants, with more than half of leave-takers electing the 30+6 month model, which is only good for EUR 436/month.

  24. “nor why infant mortality in the US remains above the OECD average”

    – Differences in reporting what constitutes a live birth between nations
    – Differences in genetic/racial diversity
    – Differences in mothers who abort at risk children
    – Differences in population density (time to hospital)
    – Differences in quality of care based on population density (the more population lives far away from big cities with big prental icu budgets, as is the case for a higher percentage of the US population, the more at risk those newborns will be)

    I highly doubt paid parental leave factors into the equation. So it would seem the primary differences between the US and Europe is the US is not Europe (different demographics and density).

    No amount of spending will change this, unless it’s proposed that we build world class hospitals in our many rural areas.

  25. I highly doubt paid parental leave factors into the equation.

    I didn’t say that it did. What I did say in the OP is that Austria’s family-friendly policies include pre- and postnatal care at no out of pocket cost to the patients (Austria has nearly 100% coverage by public health schemes), which contributes to the well-being of women and children. Then John Mansfield noted that the US spends a lot on families too. My point was “yeah, but not in a way that does much for the well-being of infants.” Or something like that.

    No amount of spending will change this, unless it’s proposed that we build world class hospitals in our many rural areas.

    Wholly unnecessary for the kind of preventative care we’re talking about here.

  26. John Mansfield says:

    The US infant mortality rate is about 75% greater than Austria’s. On the other hand the US infant survival rate is about a third of a percent lower than Austria’s. 993 to 7 for the US; 996 to 4 for Austria. If the infant mortality rates in the two nations were both ten times greater, than the difference between 7% and 4% mortality would be well worth examining. If the rates were a hundred times lower, 7 per 100,000 vs. 4 per 100,000, then the difference would matter very little.

    At the parts per thousand level, where the differences actually lie, this may well be something that Austria is doing a bit better at than the United States, perhaps indicative of overall care to mothers and infants. There certainly ought to be some number of things that Austria does better. If infant mortality is the thing that matters though, then Austria needs to examine why its infant mortality rate is twice Singapore’s.

  27. John Mansfield says:

    There is an old American myth illustrated by two men I’ve known. One was a roofer in Baltimore. His daughter was hospitalized, and he took time off to spend at her bedside. The boss didn’t like him taking so much time off, so he told the boss to go to hell, quit, and went to work with a different roofing company. The other was my father. He worked a couple dozen different jobs until he reached age 45, never more than a couple years anywhere because he liked change. Middle age finally caught a hold on him, and he stayed at his last job for 17 years. He was a union worker, so his jobs all included medical and retirement benefits, but paid vacation time was not part of the contracts. It was up to him how much time he wanted to take off and felt he could afford, be it one week or three.

    The myth is that the boss, or the company, is not my lord. It doesn’t own me, and it doesn’t keep me. I do a job for him, and he pays me my money. I’m still my own free man, and I don’t need the government passing laws requiring the boss to be a good master. If I don’t like working for him, then I’ll work somewhere else. Now, reality falls short of this ideal, and it’s an old ideal with diminishing currency, but it’s part of what Americans like about themselves at their best. When I hear of jobs being held a whole year for an absent worker, it sounds a bit feudal to my ears, and I think of those two men I mentioned above.

  28. If infant mortality is the thing that matters though, then Austria needs to examine why its infant mortality rate is twice Singapore’s.

    Fair enough; no doubt there are lessons to be learned by looking beyond one’s borders, wherever those might be.

    As for the American myth, I like it and sort of live it. At least I’ve been willing to pull up my stakes and move abroad in pursuit of family and employment, even if it was in the opposite direction of most of those who seek the American Dream.