Magazine article The American Prospect

Aiding Families, Boosting the Economy: It's Time We Saw Support for Child Care and Paid Leave as Central to Both Economic Growth and Family Well-Being

Magazine article The American Prospect

Aiding Families, Boosting the Economy: It's Time We Saw Support for Child Care and Paid Leave as Central to Both Economic Growth and Family Well-Being

Article excerpt

For many people, economic policy brings to mind issues like taxes, trade, and interest rates--the subjects that dominate the financial news. Child care and family leave go into another basket typically conceived of as "women's issues" and implicitly treated as irrelevant to economic growth and prosperity.

But this framing gets things badly wrong. About half of all workers are women, and women are the breadwinners or co-breadwinners in roughly two-thirds of families with children. Policies that affect the ability of women to work outside the home affect the ability of the economy to grow. Conversely, the failure to invest in such policies holds the economy back. And, of course, the same policies that would benefit women in the labor force would benefit men as well.

In just the past year, according to new census data, middle-class and poor families have seen significant growth in income. But when viewed over the entire period since the 1970s, the incomes of the majority of families have been nearly stagnant. The major exception has been dual-earner couples, most of whose additional income has come from women joining the labor force and working more hours. In fact, income inequality would have grown 53 percent faster if married women had not increased their labor force participation since 1963.

We might have had more growth and less inequality, however, if public policy helped workers manage commitments inside and outside the home. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that if women in the United States had the same rate of labor force participation as women in Germany or Canada--countries that provide paid leave and child-care assistance--more than five million additional women would join the labor force, boosting economic output an extra $500 billion each year. A 2015 Washington Post poll found that three-quarters of mothers and half of fathers have either left the workforce or switched to a less demanding job at some point to care for their children. Parents who leave the workforce for child care pay the price throughout their career. For example, a median female wage earner out of the workforce for five years beginning at age 26--the average age at first birth in the United States--will lose $467,000 in wages, wage growth potential, and retirement assets over the course of her lifetime.

These issues are ripe for addressing at the national level. Hillary Clinton has made them a central concern of her entire career and her presidential campaign. Donald Trump has said he would also provide help for child care and mandate paid maternity leave. The differences between their positions are enormous, but if the presidential campaign is any indication, now is the time to focus public discussion on new policies that could serve both economic growth and family well-being.

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT ONCE came close to enacting a national program of child-care assistance. That was in 1971, when Congress passed legislation that President Richard Nixon vetoed at the behest of social conservatives on the grounds that it discriminated against stay-at-home mothers. Since that time, conservative opposition has prevented the United States from adopting the kinds of measures that help working families in other rich democracies.

The only explicit work-family federal legislation is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed into law in 1993 by Bill Clinton as one of his first priorities as president. The FMLA provides job protection to workers if they need time off to care for a new baby or a seriously ill family member, to address their own serious health condition, or to deal with a family member's military deployment. Although the law has helped millions of workers keep their jobs, it provides no guarantee that the leave will be paid, and strict eligibility requirements exclude about 40 percent of workers.

As a result, even workers who do qualify for job-protected leave under the FMLA often have to return to work more quickly than is advisable because they cannot afford to take off more time without pay. …

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