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Here's How Good Policy Can Free Families

Amy Traub

This week expectant parents working in Washington DC have an extra reason to celebrate: on Tuesday, the City Council passed legislation  guaranteeing eight weeks of paid time for working parents to care for new baby or adopted child, as well as paid time to recover from illness or care for sick family members. The new benefit is available to all private sector workers in the district and is funded by a small tax on businesses. A growing number of major employers are making similar moves: earlier this month, American Express and Ikea expanded their paid leave programs for employees.

With just a handful of states guaranteeing paid time for parents to care for a new child and only 14 percent of working Americans receiving paid family leave through their employers, these steps to expand access are very welcome. Today the United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not provide paid family leave and parents – working for every employer, in every city and state – need it badly. A new study I authored with Demos colleagues Robert Hiltonsmith and Tamara Draut, analyzes the ways that public policies and business practices like the lack of paid family leave harm parents, slashing family incomes and pushing many households into poverty.

We find that American families are trapped between the need to provide care for their children and the necessity of earning income. The crisis of care is most acute when children are too young to be in school: families with children under age 5 have significantly lower incomes and higher poverty rates than households with no children at all. For example, the drop in income associated with having a young child is $14,850 – equivalent to 14 percent of household income – for households with two adults, after controlling for other factors. Single women see an even more dramatic drop in income if they become single mothers. Yet incomes rise and poverty rates fall once the youngest child reaches kindergarten age and universal schooling is available to help families meet childcare obligations. When society finally takes a modicum of responsibility for the next generation, families flourish.

As Elissa Strauss notes in Slate, child care and paid family leave and other supports for working families need to be seen as universal rights, “indispensable aspect[s] of a functioning society like schools or safe roads.” This is precisely the case that our report, “The Parent Trap”  aims to support.