Editorial: Paid Maternal and Paternal Leave? (Should the Childless support Parents?)

 

On July 28, 2005 NBC “Today” presented a report on at least a minor push to bring more paid maternity (and paternity) leave into the American workplace.

 

This issue is one which, when one drills down, one finds all kinds of conundrums and logical impasses in trying to decide what is “fair.” It provides a good example of the critical thinking one needs to go through in examining changes to social policy, particularly when the aim is to “do good” for people who seem to need it.

 

The most obvious issue to look at first is the employment marketplace. Today, many more jobs are done by contingent workers or freelancers without benefits. Such an environment increases opportunities for innovation and self-starting, at some cost to professionalism and consumer protection. But most of all, in a global economy, a market not dependent on too much focus on fringe benefits may generate more jobs.

 

But many companies do value long-term professional or working employees, and some have included paid parental leave for longer term employees. Some (like IBM) also have unpaid family leave policies that are much more liberal than the law requires. The motive to maintain the best talent will, in some cases, be a strong incentive.

 

However, it is true, that many countries in the developed world require employers to offer paid maternity leave, and the United States does not. For example, Canada mandates up to fourteen months from some employers, and Sweden requires up to eighteen months for both mothers and fathers. The United States, in comparison, requires only unpaid family leave of up to twelve weeks from larger employers for permanent employees, and in practice this benefit often is not very effective.

 

The obvious question is, of course, who pays for these benefits when they are mandatory? The Left will be glib and claim that the cost should come from investor profits. In practice, they will come from all employees’ wages, including the pay of those who do not bear children.  California has already taken the step of mandating paid family leave offering a little more than half of income for up to three months, with the contributions of all employees paying for it. Some progressive companies (and governments) offer leave banking, and allow employees to share vacation or paid leave with the most needy. This represents an interesting mix of approach as often these companies have eliminated sick leave per se and offer larger amounts of personal paid leave, which nominally favors employees with no medical problem for themselves or for dependents.

 

This gets into a sensitive area, mainly the sharing of family responsibility by others outside of immediate families, here in the workplace. A related area has always been the tendency of some employers to expect childless or single employees to work longer hours or less desirable hours to free those with family responsibilities.

 

We get here to a conflict between those with and without family responsibility over economic issues. Arguments that gay marriage and adoption would help share family responsibility are well known, but run into questions about the most suitable family environments for children, but moreover, deeper question about the meaning that society gives to people who form traditional marriages and families. Along the lines of this “meaning” paradigm there are also interesting questions about whether women who stay in the home with the kids (or, for that matter, fathers) ought to have equivalent social support.

 

European countries seem to be able to offer paid parental leave without inciting all of these conflicts presumably because they have a more “socialistic” mechanism for sharing difficult responsibilities. But European economies are somewhat stagnant and face the mounting problems of low birth rates among more affluent people. Recently, France decided to offer cash incentives to middle class (often working) women to have a third child. There is some concern that the birthrate demographics will become overwhelming as Muslim families in France and other European countries have much higher birthrates than the general population.[1]

 

There seems to be a deeper underlying lesson that members of an individualistic culture like ours need to take heart in.  That is, family responsibility and accountability to others doesn’t always wait until a baby is created.  Given low birth rates and increasing life spans, as well as increasing cognitive social tensions between “haves” and “have nots” and the danger these tensions pose to our security, persons with individual-center lifestyles (like me) must face that some community and family responsibility may be imposed on them regardless of their best choices. We could see, for example, pressure for filial responsibility laws in the future.

 

I wrote in some detail about the tension between the childless and parents in my first DADT book. Although I do not like to see government involved in setting preferences (beyond what it does already in tax and benefit codes), I suggested that employers could give slight breaks in work hours to those with dependents, with a slight additional break to those in legal marriages or (for same-sex couples in states not allowing them to marry) domestic partnerships. Employers will not want to do this in writing, but tend to do this informally. Putting policies like this in writing has the advantage of reinforcing the importance of child-rearing and eldercare as responsibilities all should share, at least indirectly. Conservatives will want to tie this to legal heterosexual marriage, but that runs into the side-effect of making marriage an institution just for granting perks and benefits. I suggested in the book that whatever perks come for marriage (same or opposite sex) should occur for only one relationship in a lifetime. Strictly enforced, such a “no divorce” rule could reduce the tension between those with different levels of family responsibility and, in the long run, make it easier to deliver social benefits to those who truly deserve them.

 

©Copyright 2005 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use

 

Chapter 5 of first DADT book

 

Review of Elinor Burkett’s The Baby Boon

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On paid parental leave:

Pro: http://www.dlc.org/ndol_ci.cfm?contentid=250903&kaid=131&subid=207

Con: http://www.uexpress.com/printable/print.html?uc_full_date=20021105&uc_comic=mg



[1] Colin Randall, “Having a third baby really pays off for French women,” The Washington Times, Sept. 21, 2005. France right now has a birthrate of 1.9 children per couple.