Left Side: Family Values

The USA is the only major country in the world that does not guarantee paid family leave. That must change—but as part of a bigger picture. 



Whenever I hear someone make the claim that “America is the greatest country in the world,” the first question that comes to mind is, “great” in what sense?

Certainly we are a great country in many respects. But the truth is that our nation would be a much better place to live if we agreed to set aside our arrogance and open our minds to the lessons that other countries can teach us.

Take the issue of paid family leave. As Bernie Sanders noted in the first Democratic debate, “every other major country on earth” guarantees it. Indeed, among 185 nations, the only others that don’t offer it are Oman and Papua New Guinea. Elsewhere, the policies vary. But in most countries, we’re not just talking about a few weeks. In Italy, for example, a new mom (or dad) is guaranteed five months of paid leave to care for—and bond with—an infant. In Great Britain, it’s even more generous. Statutory Maternity Pay, as it’s called, is available for up to nine months.

In the United States, by contrast, employees weren’t even guaranteed unpaid leave until 1993, when Congress passed the Family Medical Leave Act.

In the absence of a federal law guaranteeing paid leave, some states have taken on the initiative themselves. Currently, California, New Jersey, Washington and Rhode Island all have some kind of paid family leave provisions—and the policies enjoy broad support. A study conducted this year by Columbia University Business School, for example, found that three quarters of Rhode Island’s employers supported that state’s family leave act. Another study showed similar support in New Jersey.

More recently, New York joined this small group of states, although its family leave act won’t go into effect until 2018. Like other laws of its kind, the act is designed not only for new parents but also for other family emergencies, like serious illness of a spouse or child. When fully phased in, employees of New York companies both large and small will be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid leave. The program will be funded through an already existing Temporary Disability Insurance program, whereby a small amount of money (approximately one dollar per week) will be deducted from employee paychecks.

It’s an important step. As New York’s official website puts it, “Establishing paid family leave marks a pivotal next step in the pursuit of equality and dignity in both the workplace and home.”

Equality is the key word. As with health insurance and so many other aspects of life in this country, rich families needn’t worry. When it comes to parenting, they can hire nannies, choose the best daycare centers or simply have one parent quit his or her job and stay home. Poor and struggling middleclass families, by contrast, are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Quitting work is not an option; nor is taking unpaid leave. But finding affordable daycare is no easy task, either.

The ultra-conservative response, of course, is, if you can’t afford to raise children, don’t have them.

The trouble with that attitude is that it’s dehumanizing. Essentially, it’s an argument that the greatest joy in life should be available only to people who have figured out how to get rich.

Another common response is, I don’t have kids. Why should I have to give up even one dollar from my paycheck to pay for someone else’s?

To my mind, this is a sad commentary on our society. For 40 years or so, we as a nation have increasingly embraced an every-man-for-himself mentality—and certainly not with regard to family leave alone. One often hears the same argument applied to funding for public schools, mass transit and a host of other societal assets. I don’t use ’em; not my problem.

But the flaws in this “reasoning” should be clear. First of all, as a practical matter, when a nation fails to provide adequate social welfare programs, we all pay eventually in one way or another, whether it be in higher crime rates, the need for more poverty programs or deficiencies in the productivity of the workforce. Conversely, when we enact programs and policies to ensure the basic welfare of every citizen, we all benefit.

The notion that other people’s kids are not your problem is also, quite simply, a reflection of profound lack of compassion, not to mention the hypocrisy of the right-wing slogan “family values.”

For these reasons, it is important to look at the issue of paid family leave, not simply in and of itself, but as part of the bigger picture. For starters, I recommend viewing Michael Moore’s new documentary, Where to Invade Next. The title is misleading. It’s not another Moore film about militarism. Moore toured a host of other countries from Italy and France to Slovenia and Iceland to see what we might learn about the way other people live. What he found in those nations were attitudes toward work—among employees and employers alike—that are far more sane and humane than the typical American attitude. Thus, people in those countries enjoy, in most cases, free healthcare, free college education, abundant paid vacation time, adequate wages and healthier working environments.

In some countries he visited, he learned that things were not always this way. Policies changed for the benefit of workers only through strong union action and the replacement of poor government leaders with good ones. That may be the most important lesson of all.

Yes, the people in those countries generally pay higher taxes than we do. But the return on investment is a vastly improved quality of life for all, not just the fortunate few.

It’s no coincidence, then, that prior to passing its paid family leave act, New York passed a law raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

It’s all of a piece. But it is, of course, limited to that state and a handful of others. And this is too important to leave to the states. What we need to campaign for are federal laws designed to improve the quality of life for all Americans, regardless of where they happen to live. Doing so would still not necessarily earn us the title of “the greatest country in the world”—but who cares? The important goal is to become better than we currently are—to become, in other words, a nation in which people matter more than profits and in which life is measured not on a timecard but in a better balance between work and family life. 

Categories: Left Side