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How America ended up with the worst maternity leave laws on Earth
And why the government should do something about it
 
Watching the little one should not mean giving up the job.
Watching the little one should not mean giving up the job. (iStock)

This week, President Obama issued a call for the U.S. to catch up with the rest of the planet and offer paid maternity leave. "If France can figure this out, we can figure this out," he said. But it's not just France that the U.S. lags behind — it's everyone. The only other country besides the U.S. that doesn't offer cash benefits to women during maternity leave is Papua New Guinea, according to a 2014 International Labor Organization analysis of 185 countries and territories. (Many also offer paid paternity and family leave.)

The idea that women should get paid leave when they have babies started to crop up around World War I and again around World War II. Countries' populations had been decimated, which meant there was a high premium on women as economic contributors and childbearers, explains Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. She says that in the United States, in part due to fewer casualties and the fact that men returned to the labor force, there weren't the same incentives to offer women paid maternity leave.

Since the 1960s, a handful of states have mandated paid maternity leave, framing pregnancy as a disability that allowed new mothers to be eligible for temporary disability insurance, says Steven Wisensale, a professor at the University of Connecticut who does research on family leave policy. But the idea didn't take off. Currently, only California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey provide paid family leave.

In the Reagan years, there was a rebirth of individualism in American politics, notes Wisensale. Since then, paid leave "is viewed by the right wing and frightened moderates as 'more big taxes by big government,'" he says. Shabo agrees that the United States has a "mythologized individualistic culture," where people believe finances and parenthood are to be dealt with individually, with each family fending for themselves.

Wisensale says that when the U.S. first debated paid leave at the federal level in the 1980s, the language ultimately was changed from "maternity" to "family" to appeal to a strong lobbying force, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). "When they selected the AARP, it came with a price," he says. "The coverage became broader (not just newborns but elderly, too) and thus it became too expensive to cover — or so the argument went for those on the right and even those in the center."

It took the United States until 1993 to mandate unpaid leave for new parents and other family and medical reasons. Joan Williams, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings, who specializes in work and family issues, says that unpaid leave has helped, because it "protects hourly workers from being fired when they have a baby or need to care for a child or elder with a serious health condition." But that doesn't change the fact that "we need paid leave," she says.

According to the National Women's Law Center (NWLC), only 12 percent of workers get paid family leave through their employers. The idea that U.S. companies are driven by the market to offer competitive leave benefits is "definitely a misconception," says Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel at NWLC.

Democrats are pushing a proposal, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, that would provide employees 12 weeks of paid leave, during which they would receive 66 percent of their monthly wages, capped at $1,000 a week. The program would be paid for through small payroll contributions made by employees and employers. So far, the bill has no Republican co-sponsors, even though "plenty of Republicans support the idea" in public opinion polls, notes Martin.

But that's not to say all Democrats are leaping at the prospect, either. President Obama hasn't endorsed the bill, and Zachary Goldfarb of The Washington Post writes that "five and a half years after taking office, Obama has no proposal on the table for paid family leave." Recently, at CNN's town hall meeting, Hillary Clinton said of mandatory family leave, "I don’t think, politically, we could get it now.”

In the meantime, this political stalemate isn't doing expectant mothers any favors. "When women don't have access to paid leave, the birth of a child can be a moment of financial crisis for a family," says Martin.

Williams puts it more bluntly: "The United States is still trying to pretend that real workers don't have babies," she says. "Other countries offer paid maternity leave because they're facing reality — we have our head in the sand."

 
Dana Liebelson is a reporter for Mother Jones. She speaks Mandarin and German and plays violin in the D.C.-based Indie rock band Bellflur.

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