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Why Is the United States Last in Valuing Families? | Commentary

The most economically advanced nation on Earth is in some ways one of the most primitive.

I learned this the hard way. When I was a young staff member with the New York state Senate, my husband and I were thrilled when I became pregnant with my first child and we started making plans for the arrival of the baby. When I asked my employer about the parental leave policy, the answer essentially was, “Well — just leave.” I was told that no one had ever asked to keep their job after having a baby. Women apparently had to choose between having a baby and having a job.

At that time, the federal government didn’t require employers to allow parents to take time off to care for a newborn child. It wasn’t until 1993, when Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act that parents were given the right to take reasonable, unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child. They weren’t guaranteed a paycheck, but at least they wouldn’t lose their jobs.

Today, every industrialized country in the world except the United States helps new mothers by providing guaranteed paid maternity leave. Even most developing countries offer paid leave. It is only the U.S. and Papua New Guinea that do not provide paid leave for new mothers.

In the United States, parents are still forced to decide between taking time to take care of a newborn child and taking home a paycheck needed to support a family. This is a choice no family should have to make.

Politicians like to talk about “family values.” But family values should begin by valuing families — which means giving young parents an opportunity to care for newborn babies without losing a job or losing a paycheck.

Requiring employers to offer paid parental leave is not only the right thing to do, it’s the economically sound thing to do. It’s both a good moral decision and a good business decision.

Studies have found paid leave helps workers stay in jobs that are a good match for them and thus boosts productivity. It increases the likelihood that young parents will return to their jobs, instead of dropping out of the labor force. With paid maternity leave, employees who return to work are about 40 percent less likely to receive public assistance in the year after the birth of a child than new mothers who keep working and do not take leave. Businesses don’t have to spend time and money trying to replace new parents who just need a little help while they start raising their child. And workforce morale is higher.

There are strong precedents for providing paid parental leave. Nearly 75 percent of Fortune 100 companies provide six to eight weeks of paid maternity leave to employees, according to a survey conducted by the Joint Economic Committee majority staff in 2008. The U.S. Armed Forces provide six weeks of paid leave to new mothers for normal births — more if they have complications.

But the fact is that tens of millions of American parents still don’t get paid parental leave. This is a hardship on those families and it gives their children a more difficult start in life.

I have been working for more than 15 years in Congress to pass a law that would require the federal government to offer paid parental leave. That’s why I was thrilled when President Barack Obama expressed his support for paid family leave in his recent State of the Union address.

This week, I will reintroduce legislation that will provide six weeks of paid parental leave for federal employees. The bill has received strong bipartisan support in the past — in the 111th Congress it passed the House, but died in the Senate. If given a fair chance, the legislation could pass even in this Congress and get signed into law by the president.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, this bill won’t cost taxpayers any additional money. In short, there is no valid reason to oppose our legislation based on budget concerns — there are none.

Our legislation is a strong step in the right direction, but it should not be our final goal. In the end, we need to provide adequate paid parental leave to every American family so parents can offer their children a good start in life.

Members of Congress would be up in arms if the United States was near the bottom in terms of education or economic growth. They should be no less concerned about the fact that our country is close to dead last when it comes to supporting young families. The time to change that is now.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., is the ranking member on the Joint Economic Committee.

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