Paid family leave is an integral part of a high-quality child care and early learning system. But for the vast majority of Americans, paid family leave is a dream rather than a reality – currently, the United States is the only OECD nation that does not offer paid maternity leave. Research shows that paid family leave supports family financial stability and fosters strong bonds between parents and children, which can influence children’s development outcomes throughout their lifetime. We must begin working towards a federal strategy that supports families and children across the United States and paid family leave has to be a key component of that strategy.
The increasing necessity for both parents to work forces families to make the impossible choice between putting food on table and recovering from giving birth and bonding with a new baby. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that only 14 percent of civilian workers have access to a formal paid family leave policy. Less educated and low-wage workers have far less access than their counterparts. Additionally, families know that paid family leave and early care and learning is not an “either/or”; it is a “both/and”. When parents return to work – whether by necessity or choice – it is imperative that their babies have an affordable, safe, loving, and enriching early care and learning program to attend.
Fortunately for families, paid family leave has garnered increasing levels of bipartisan support in recent years. It’s clear why: paid family leave has benefits for families, businesses, and the economy. Paid family leave promotes family financial stability. It increases the likelihood that women who choose to – or must because of financial obligations – will stay in the workforce and continue advancing in their careers. Studies also show that maternal leave before and after birth is associated with decreased rates of low birth weight and infant mortality. What’s more, the effect on business is often either positive or cost-neutral. Employers in states that have begun implementing paid family leave overwhelmingly report a positive or neutral effect on productivity, workflow, and morale.
Most importantly, from the day they are born, children need time with their parents to build strong bonds with them. Research indicates that these bonds are incredibly consequential to children’s long-term outcomes. In fact, study after study finds that a child who has a secure attachment to his or her parents has more advanced cognitive and language development, greater achievement in school, and is more likely to finish school. A strong attachment predicts children’s social and emotional development and their abilities to form healthy relationships with others over time. It has an effect on children’s mental health early in life and far into adulthood, with children who are not securely attached being more likely to demonstrate early aggressive behavior and various forms of psychopathology in adulthood. Today’s children are tomorrow’s citizens, workers, mothers, and fathers and we must ensure they get the right start.
Paid family leave must be a part of a new, affordable early care and learning system. It is an essential part of supporting families – allowing parents to spend time with their babies in the first weeks of their lives, allowing new mothers time to fully recover, and encouraging the bonding and attachment that lays the foundation for children’s growth and success over time. An overwhelming majority of American’s support paid family leave and an increasing number of politicians support paid family leave, but bipartisan proposals are few and far between. It’s time for increased bipartisanship to ensure paid family leave becomes integrated into broader policy discussions around early childhood development.