The United States, a country that holds over $8 trillion in accumulated wealth, has yet to join the modern world in guaranteeing paid maternity leave. In fact, it holds company with only three other countries in the rest of the world: Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, and Swaziland. All of which are developing nations. This is shameful.
Currently, employers are mandated to supply only 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave to expecting mothers. But far too often this leave is never taken due to financial constraints. This is especially true in the case of single mothers. According to the 2010 US census, single mothers make an average of just $36,000 per year. Taking 12 weeks off of work, in which their only source of income is halted, slashes their income by a staggering 25%. This deficit is amplified by the added costs of infant necessities.
According to the USDA, the first year of a child’s life costs upward of $13,000 in food, clothing, sanitary products, and child care. This amount of money coupled with unpaid leave would put a strain on a standard middle class family with two incomes, let alone a single mother with just one. Many a conservative will argue that the decision to offer paid leave should be left to the free market as a tool to recruit valuable employee prospects. But the truth is only 12% of US companies even offer paid maternity leave. That number alone is down from 17% in 2010. And a whopping 72% of people support guaranteed paid family leave.
Among the other nations of the the developed world, the United States mandate of just 12 weeks of any maternity leave at all pales in comparison to our Canadian and European friends. Germany, France, Belgium, Canada, The United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and Poland all offer in the neighborhood of 20 weeks of guaranteed paid maternity leave. Countries like Hungary, Japan, Estonia offer 60, 70 , or even 80+ weeks of paid maternity leave! According to Pew Research in a study among 41 developed nations, the United States was dead last in maternity leave policies. The result wasn’t even close.
But paid maternity leave isn’t just an economic issue, it’s also a health issue. According to a 2011 study of 141 different countries with paid maternity leave, infant mortality dropped by an average of 10%. Yet another study found that mothers with paid leave were almost 25% more likely to get their children vaccinated against measles and polio while no increase was seen at all without paid leave. Mothers with paid maternity leave also breast-fed their infants for nearly twice as long as mothers left without it. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, breast-feeding is crucial in preventing various infections, asthma, and reduces infant mortality. And the health correlation is quite obvious to see. The United States currently holds the highest infant mortality rate among the 27 wealthiest countries in the world. A child is more 3 times more likely to die in its first year in the United States than it would if born in Japan. This is nothing short of a national embarrassment.
And while there are different methods to ensure paid maternity leave, most of them are extremely affordable. The FAMILY Act, introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders in January of 2016, and which currently has 18 other cosponsors, would supply 12 weeks of paid maternity leave via a simple payroll tax which would amount to $1.61 per week for the average worker. Any politician who claims paid leave for new mothers is too expensive is simply lying.
The United States must join the rest of the world in guaranteeing paid maternity leave, whether it be through a small payroll tax shared with employers or a policy requiring employers to offer it. The effects we are seeing without it are catastrophic. The US should be leading the world in the health of our infant children, not be dead last. We should be making it easier on the mothers of future generations not harder. Easing the financial burden on new parents is not only essential to competing in a 21st century global economy, but it is simply the right and moral thing to do.