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The Exceptionalism of Paid Family Leave in America

Juhem Navarro-Rivera

Politicians refer to American exceptionalism as a way of pointing out how special is our country. I recently returned to work following three months of paid leave to take care of a very exceptional newborn boy. Having the opportunity to bond with my child is an exceptional experience in the American labor force. 

This exceptionalism Americans shouldn't be proud of.

I belong to a small group within the American labor force. Because the government does not guarantee paid family leave only 13 percent of workers in the United States have access to this benefit. While in our country paid family leave is a benefit -even a privilege- we are the exception to the rule around the planet. As my colleague Amy Traub points out “the United States is one of just three [nations] that doesn’t guarantee at least some paid leave to new mothers.” The number of countries providing guaranteed paid leave for fathers is smaller, making my experience even more exceptional.

The 13 percent of workers with access to paid family leave reflects the class, racial, and gender hierarchy of the labor force. Managers in the business and financial sectors, primarily comprised of white males, are twice as likely as workers in general to have access to paid leave (27 percent vs. 13 percent). Managers are also four times (27 percent vs. 7 percent) more likely than workers in the services sectors, who are more likely to be women of color, of having access to employers providing paid family leave.

A policy like paid family leave is not just a nice thing the state gives to people. It benefits workers and employers. It allows women to recover from the strenuous effects of birthing while bonding with their children. Though men do not need to recover from giving birth, there are benefits related to a father staying with a newborn child. A Department of Labor brief summarizes some of these benefits, including an increase of father engagement and bonding. More engaged fathers lead to better health and development outcomes for children.

America’s dubious exceptionalism is not borne out of people’s indifference toward working families. More than 8-in-10 (82 percent) Americans are in favor of paid family leave for taking care of a newborn or newly adopted child. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, this consensus includes three-quarters of Republicans, 8-in-10 independents and 9-in-10 Democrats. If Americans of all political stripes realize how important is for parents to have a time for bonding with their new children, what is stopping us from implementing this policy?

As is the case with many policies benefitting workers, business interests are among the strongest opponents of paid family leave. Demos' Stacked Deck report highlights the role of business groups lobbying and campaign contributions as a major obstacle in the fight for guaranteed paid sick days—a policy what mirrors paid family leave in terms of public support, corporate opposition, and American social policy exceptionalism—in Connecticut. Recent efforts to implement paid family leave in the states and nationally have received open opposition from business groups.

It is not surprising that a government claiming that the voices of corporations supersede those of the people places a greater importance to profits than to the well-being of families. I am grateful (and lucky) to work for an employer that understands the importance of having a healthy and happy workforce. 

My experience as a new father bonding with a child has been exceptional. That shouldn't be the case.