All men and women are created equal, but their fate is determined shortly thereafter. It rests on a foundation built in the first few years of life, when the developing brain acquires language and social skills.
Former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson, who stressed prevention throughout his healthcare career, has dedicated his semi-retirement to early childhood development. “Children whose brains get exercised in the first three years of life are more likely to stay in school, avoid challenging health situations, and literally stay out of jail,” he’s written.
Societies looking to avoid future healthcare costs strive to give every child maximum exposure to parental and social stimulation during these crucial early years.
That’s why every country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development offers paid family leave for new parents. Most also offer high-quality, affordable childcare for working parents.
There is one exception.
In 1993 the U.S. passed the Family and Medical Leave Act. But it only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn child, a sick family member or to deal with one’s own medical situation. Many people can’t afford to take the time off, and 40% of the workforce isn’t even eligible because they work at firms with fewer than 50 employees, are in their first year of employment, or work part time.
The U.S. does a bit better on day care, ranking slightly below the OECD average with about 30% of kids enrolled in pre-K education. However, every Western European nation ranks higher (except Austria) with Denmark and Belgium leading the way with around 60% of under-5 kids engaging in organized interactions with their tot peers.
During a recent trip to Italy, my wife and I struck up a conversation with four professional Swedish women in their late 30s enjoying a holiday. Their small kids were back home in the care of their husbands, who were also taking paid family leave days off.
They have a name for Swedish guys hanging around coffee shops during the day with their small children in tow. “Latte husbands,” they laughed.
This use of some of their 480 days of employer-paid family leave for vacation served a larger purpose, the women said. It would recharge them for the serious work of parenting. Their husbands would later take their own time away as a group. “Everyone does it,” one said, “so there’s no professional stigma at work.”
When the Trump administration entered office, there was a flicker of hope that the U.S. would finally join the ranks of civilized countries offering paid family leave. First daughter Ivanka had signaled it was one of her highest priorities.
But the legislation (H.R. 1185 in the House, sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut with 191 co-sponsors; S. 463 in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York with 34 co-sponsors), has yet to find a single Republican backer. The bills would establish a 0.2% payroll tax, about the price of a latte out of the typical weekly paycheck, to fund up to 12 weeks of paid family leave.
A Republican alternative, offered by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, only offers paid leave to new parents, nothing for family emergencies. It also requires they borrow the money from their future Social Security payments, thus forcing young adults to make the terrible choice between protecting their own futures or their children’s.
There’s no excuse for this miserly approach. A poll commissioned last fall by the National Partnership for Women and Families, which backs paid family leave, found 94% of Democrats, 83% of independents, and 74% of Republicans support paid time off to care for loved ones.
If Republicans and Democrats in Congress can’t find common ground on this, they’ll never find common ground on anything.