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.

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor
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.

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. 

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? 

If you have read Modern Parenthood before you know that we try to bring a critical eye to the oft-repeated conventional wisdom about families and parenting. We have questioned the massive anti-bullying trend sweeping the country’s schools, for instance. We raised some questions about the anti-sex trafficking movement. So we were certainly willing to debunk a myth here. 

Except ...  this one seems to be pretty right on. According to a number of reports, the US does seem to be out of step with other countries when it comes to maternity leave policy. (It also is one of the few countries that has not signed two international conventions on women’s rights that outline the importance of paid leave for new moms.)  

The Project on Global Working Families, a joint venture by Harvard and McGill Universities, developed with the support of the Ford Foundation a “Work, Family, and Equity Index,” in which it evaluates policies such as parental leave, paid sick leave, work hours, and support for breastfeeding. Researchers scoured national labor codes and other laws, dug into the International Labour Organization’s database of global labor, social security and human-rights legislation, and reviewed dozens of secondary sources – all to try to piece together what can sometimes seem like an apple-orange comparison of different countries’ labor policies. 

Of the 173 countries the researchers evaluated for policies around childbearing, they found that 169 offered moms guaranteed leave with income. (This is either because the government provides it, or because the government mandates employers to provide it.)  Ninety-eight of those countries offer 14 or more weeks paid leave.  

And dads aren’t left out. (At least not totally.) Sixty-six countries ensure that fathers receive or have a right to paid parental leave. 

So what’s up with the US? 

As anyone who followed this last presidential election knows all too well, we are a country resistant to “government meddling” – especially in areas that we have traditionally thought of as private.  This gets even more virulent if you start messing around with business bottom lines, which would clearly be affected if the government required employers to pay women during maternity leave.  (Not to mention the following complaints of non-parents who might wonder why they don’t get paid leave for some other sort of family obligation.) 

Supporters of paid leave have counter arguments. They say that paid leave would result in improved employee retention, health and quality, and would more than offset the financial hit to the employer, or to the taxpayers.  

But at this point, it’s not something the US federal government has been willing to legislate. 

And if you look closer, the US might not be as bad, comparatively, as it seems.  In many countries that seem to have cushy maternity leave, a huge percentage of women work in the informal sector. That means they don’t benefit from the policies. And in other countries – Somalia, for instance, which guarantees 14 to 25 weeks paid leave for new moms – the ability of government to enforce policies is sketchy, at best.

Still, there is growing pressure from US mom groups to revisit the issue of paid parental leave.  

In the meantime, we'll envy Sweden

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