Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Will new policies in San Francisco and New York nudge the country towards valuing domestic labor?
It’s been a big week for families in two U.S. coastal cities, with working parents receiving more options for spending time with their infants without jeopardizing their income. But some critics worry that, though the policies ease some financial burdens for growing families, they don't do enough to dismantle a cultural trope that construes work and parenthood as a zero-sum game.
San Francisco approved 6 weeks of fully paid parental leave for all new parents, becoming the first American city to do so. The financial onus will be shared between employers and public disability insurance, with companies responsible for 45 percent, and public funds making up the difference, the New York Times reported.
New York also approved an expansion of paid parental leave, bundled with a state budget deal. The funding will come from payroll taxes. When fully implemented, NPR reports, the policy will cover 67 percent of an employee’s average wages for up to 12 weeks.
“These policies will not only lift up the current generation of low-wage workers and their families, but ensure fairness for future generations and enable them to climb the ladder of opportunity,” New York governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.
Both policies are more comprehensive than the Family and Medical Leave Act, signed into law by then-president Bill Clinton in 1993. As NPR reported this week, the FMLA offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave. While this allowed workers to preserve their health insurance coverage, it amounted to an income freeze, and excluded part-time employees. It also only applies to companies with more than 50 employees. Until March of 2015, same-sex partners couldn’t make use of FMLA coverage, either.
Lengthier parental leave may confer significant health benefits to newborns, according to a study published last month in the journal PLOS Medicine. Previous research has noted a correlation between parental leave and lowered infant mortality rates in wealthy countries. Now, by analyzing data from 20 countries over an 8-year period, researchers from McGill University found that the relationship holds true in lower- and middle-income nations, too. On average, expanded parental leave was associated with a 13 percent decrease in infant mortality.
Still, some critics worry that the new plans fall short, arguing that progress is modest, at best, and insufficient to instigate a cultural shift towards valuing domestic labor.
One pregnant lawyer from the Legal Aid Society summed up San Francisco’s achievement to the Times:
“We are ahead of the curve in California, but globally, we are way behind,” she said. “It’s shameful.”
As Rebecca Rosen has noted in The Atlantic, the U.S. is one of very few countries that doesn’t offer universal maternity leave. And while mothers will benefit from these new policies in San Francisco and New York, fathers will, too. Even in the many countries that do offer robust maternity leave, dads often get just a fraction of the time. (In Mexico, for instance, mothers receive 12 weeks of paid leave, while fathers can only take 1 week, FiveThirtyEight reported.) A policy brief from the U.S. Department of Labor reported that, while nine out of ten American fathers do take some time off of work following a birth or adoption, 70 percent of them are back to work in two weeks or less.
But even if fathers do have access to more parental leave, Josh Levs, author of the book, All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families and, Businesses—And How We Can Fix It Together, told Vogue that there’s still a persistent workplace stigma to be battled: “[I’ve heard] so many stories of men who took time off and were punished for it,” he said. “They were demoted or even fired for breaking from that macho norm.” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took two months off from work following the birth of his daughter last fall, a move that was widely touted as a coup for working dads—and families in general.
Moreover, parental leave is only one piece of the childcare puzzle in America. Throughout the U.S., working parents are often saddled with unfeasible childcare costs. A new report from the Economic Policy Institute throws this into stark relief. The report charted childcare costs by state, concluding that, though the fees are crippling across the country, certain states struggle even more than others. Childcare costs are an especially burdensome share of take-home income for people who earn the minimum wage
According to the report, infant care in California runs about $11,817 per year. In Washington, D.C.—the country’s most expensive location for childcare—that number skyrockets to $22,631. It’s a sizable chunk of change for nearly any family, but essentially insurmountable for the working poor. Simply meeting childcare costs—without accounting for other expenses, such as food and rent—would cost 103.6 percent of annual minimum-wage earnings in the District.
Both sums greatly exceed the standards set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which considers childcare to be affordable only if it diverts less than 10 percent of a family’s income. Even when parents are able to take parental leave, chances are they’ll have trouble paying for childcare when they do return to work.
Childcare workers struggle to make ends meet for their own families, too. According to the EPI report, more than 14 percent of childcare providers’ families live in poverty—more than twice the national average. And a recent story in the New Yorker enumerates the ways in which the financial and emotional tolls of this kind of labor are exacerbated on a trans-national scale, when immigrant women care for American children and send money to their own kids who remain overseas.
In addition to lagging in terms of parental leave, the U.S. trails behind other nations when it comes to post-partum care, too—though new initiatives show American cities taking a cue from successful programs elsewhere. Deadspin recently reported that Fort Worth, Texas will distribute 36,000 “baby boxes” this year, inspired by a kit that Finland has handed out to expectant parents since 1949. The Finnish kits contain bedding, bath supplies, and clothes, and other supplies; similar kits will be handed out in Fort Worth, where the infant mortality rate is much higher than the national average.
These new family leave policies and resources will certainly benefit families—perhaps low-income and single-earner households, in particular. And maybe, by recasting paternity leave as the norm, they could also start to chip away at some of the gendered stereotypes surrounding caregiving that have been hard to shake.