Did you spend time with your family on Feb. 15? Canadians did. For many of our northern neighbors, this Monday wasn’t Presidents Day but Family Day, an official paid holiday created in several provinces for the sole purpose of promoting quality time for families.
Canada’s Family Day is the capstone in a long tradition of family-friendly policies that support and strengthen the family unit. Although America has a deep-seated philosophy that strong families are key to a strong country, our state and national policies simply don’t measure up.
Despite our fears that socialism is an unwanted and perhaps contagious disease, in these tough economic times, most Americans would welcome the kind of public benefits provided to Canadian families. New parents can take up to 50 weeks of paid maternity or paternity leave, at up to 55 percent salary. They are also guaranteed a comparable job when they return to work at the end of the time off.
To help offset the costs of raising children, a variety of subsidy programs are available, both to working parents who use day care and stay-at-home moms and dads. These benefits are in addition to guaranteed healthcare for all families, regardless of income, employment history, size of workplace, or preexisting health conditions.
Dubious distinction on parental leave
By contrast, the United States is arguably the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t give all new moms paid time off. In a 2007 report that studied 173 countries, a Harvard and McGill University research team found that 168 nations provide some form of paid income benefit for childbirth, leaving the United States in the company of four other countries – Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland, and Papau New Guinea – that do not guarantee some form of paid maternity leave.
Even US companies that are praised for being family friendly offer little more than six weeks of fully paid leave. The resulting financial pressure causes many moms to separate prematurely from their newborns. Given all we know about early childhood development, this separation imposes a high cost on families and society in years to come.
An American mother might be able to afford to take another six weeks of unpaid leave, or some companies may allow her to use sick time to extend her paid leave. She must return to work within 12 weeks, however, or risk losing her job. Fathers are generally absent from the equation unless they qualify for, and can afford to take, the 12 weeks of unpaid leave provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). But since FMLA applies only to companies with more than 50 employees, about 40 percent of US workers aren’t eligible.
Such help is no help at all to the growing number of homeless and jobless families. And millions of families that try to keep a parent at home with the kids must do so without good health insurance. These families face the fear that one health crisis could leave them in financial ruin.
Maternity leave in America comes in the form of disability insurance. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 prevents employers from treating pregnancy or childbirth any differently from the way it treats other short-term disabilities. Thirty years ago, this legislation afforded critical employment protection for women. Today, it effectively devalues families by classifying the act of motherhood as something broken or sick.
The cost of not investing in parents
What if the United States chose to follow Canada’s lead and funded families as a high national priority? Critics say we could never pull off something so radical because of sheer cost. What we don’t realize is that we are already paying.
When we say we can’t afford to invest in new moms, dads, and their babies, we pay in other ways – with attachment disorders, compromised mental and physical health, and stressed and absent parents during the critical formative years when research and instinct tell us our children need us most.
For all our fears about the cost of universal healthcare, the US already spends much more on healthcare than Canada does. Canadians seem to have found a way to focus on wellness, preventive care, and lifestyle changes. The US seems to operate in perpetual crisis mode, with high-cost, uncontrollable healthcare usage that has emergency rooms bursting.
A healthy country depends on healthy families. Yet rather than unite to push for needed reforms, Americans have politicized family values. The “pro-family” distinction has been hijacked in America by right-wing politics. We discuss gay marriage endlessly, but have yet to begin to talk seriously about practical ways to help the parents who raise our newest citizens, and who live and work in our communities.
It is true that American families are under attack, but for reasons that transcend the current, unhelpful conservative-liberal debate. In the past decade, as Canadians have doubled the length of standard parental leave, and secured Family Day for additional provinces, Americans have divided along partisan lines, watching lobbyists fight tooth and nail to see whose definition of family will sway federal policy. The debate has distracted us from the difference we might make if we just focused on those things that are good for all families.
Canada’s newest statutory holiday may not be enough for Americans to move to a colder climate. But it ought to be enough to give us pause. Canadians have implemented vastly different policies that benefit their families, not just on the third Monday of February, but every day, in the quality of life they lead.
With a fresh focus on the importance of families, and a united commitment to strengthen the family unit, we Americans could see similar progress, if not a new national holiday. At the very least we can acknowledge, that yesterday, as they took time off from work to spend with their families, our northern neighbors got it right.
Angela Kays-Burden is a licensed master social worker.