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Modern Parenthood

Parental leave global comparison: US still among least generous

Parental leave policies that guarantee new moms leave with income are available in 169 countries – the US is not among them, showed a study by Harvard and McGill Universities.

By / December 26, 2012

Parental leave policy in the US is not guaranteed. Ingrid Ahlgren ( ), a New York City mom, leaves her child Annika Liu with the baby's great-grandmother Rita Cheong when she's at work.

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor

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There’s a factoid that regularly comes up when we report about childcare costs  or work-life balance or any number of the policy-related topics that impact American moms and dads. 

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is a longtime Monitor correspondent. She lives in Andover, Mass. with her husband, her two young daughters, a South African Labrador retriever and an imperialist cat..

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The United States., advocates will say, is one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to maternity leave.  (And paternity leave, for that matter.) 

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It’s the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee some form of paid leave to new moms, they say, and it’s one of only a very few even when you include impoverished and developing countries. One recent report, for instance, identified only four nations – the US, Swaziland, Liberia, and Papua New Guinea – that do not guarantee a new mom income while she stays home with her baby. 

This is the sort of tidbit that makes the rounds via Facebook. (One recent meme “mapped” paid maternity leave, showing how many more weeks of paid leave Pakistan, South Africa, Mexico, and Venezuela give to new moms, compared with zero from the US.) It gets repeated as a given in debates and on social action websites such as Change.org.  

So we wanted to find out – is it true?  Is the US, globally, really all that bad when it comes to family leave policies? 

It’s an important question. The lack of paid leave has major ripple effects. Although the US Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees eligible employees 12 weeks off after the birth of the child, it only covers a fraction of the US workforce, and does not require employers to pay the parent's salary. This means that many moms (and some dads) face the financial lose-lose of either giving up large amounts of income while they stay home with baby, or spending lots of money on high-priced infant day care. 

Researchers have found that a new baby in the house is one of the top reasons for a “poverty spell,” when a family’s income dips below what is needed to pay for basic expenses.  Some studies have also connected bankruptcy filings and foreclosures to moms or dads who take leave without pay after the birth of a child. 

But does the US actually “lag behind,” as a number of advocates say? 

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