IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Paid paternity leave benefits dads and moms - and we can afford it

\"Children's Chances\" (Harvard University Press)/ World Policy Analysis Centre, Institute for Health and Social Policy, McGill Un


On Sunday, Americans will celebrate Father’s Day by recognizing the contributions made by dad to the family, but in this country and elsewhere, men continue to be short-changed when it comes to taking time off to spend with their kids. And short-changing dad impacts the whole family.

While the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) passed in the early 1990s provided either parent with the right to take 12 weeks of leave without losing their job in order to take care of a new child (or for medical-related reasons), the United States continues to rate near the bottom of the list globally in terms of the benefits provided to new parents.

In an examination of 21 high-income countries, the United States ranked 20th in terms of generosity of parental leave and policy designs for couples, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Japan, among others, all beat the U.S. save for Switzerland.

Dedicated paid paternity leave is rarer than paid maternity leave across the globe, despite growing anecdotal evidence of a rise in Mr. Moms in developed countries like the U.S.

Only 81 countries offer paid paternity leave or paid parental leave that dads can take, compared to 177 that offer paid maternity leave, noted Jody Heymann, co-author of Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth That We Cant Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone, and director of Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University.

“The United States is in quite rare company in not having paid maternity leave,” she told Lean Forward. “The story of paternity leave is quite different. The world is much further behind on paternity leave.”


CEPR scored the U.S. higher—tied in 10th with Germany—on its Gender Equality Index, which measures how well each gender has access to parental leave, because both parents are entitled to the FMLA equally in the U.S. However, no paid parental leave is mandated in the U.S. except for in some state-run programs, such as California and New Jersey. In fact, about 40% of American workers are not eligible for FMLA, and only about a quarter of U.S. employers offer fully paid maternity-related leave of any kind, according to a CEPR report, “Parental Leave Policies in 21 Countries.”

In other words, corporate America is not filling in where the government has left off.

The problem with not offering dads equal amounts of time off and more specifically, equal paid time off, as moms, is that it “completely reinforces the cultural expectation that women take care of children and men continue to work,” said John Schmitt, senior economist at CEPR and a co-author of the report.

Moreover, because men still earn on average more than women, coupled with mom’s likely need to take at least some time off immediately following birth for recovery and tasks like breast-feeding, a family’s decision is made for them.  “Men are reluctant to leave money on the table,” Schmitt said.

This sets up an inherent gender inequality that robs men and their families of precious bonding but also means women spend more time out of the work force as they are solely saddled with child care, hurting their future earning potential, while also depriving organizations of talent.

Heymann relays the reaction of finance ministers she has met around the globe, incredulous at U.S. policy: “Why would you want to try to compete in this global economy with half your workforce?”

“It means we are less productive as a society,” Schmitt added.

Encouraging men to take parental leave hinges on offering dedicated, non-transferable paid leave for dads, both Schmitt and Heymann said. It should be presented as a “use it or lose it” option thus encouraging men to partake while they can.

Paid-leave is affordable

Schmitt and Heymann agree that the cost of paid parental leave is achievable in the U.S. at an affordable rate. 

Heymann notes that if the average birthrate is two kids per family, and parents were provided with a paid FMLA – so 12 weeks per child – that would amount to only 24 weeks over the course of an entire career – less than 1% of lifetime earnings and occurring typically in the lower-earning years of youth.

“This is ultimately affordable,” she said.

Nor is it a radical plan that would try to mirror the multiple years of time off provided in some countries. 

Schmitt praised the programs in California and New Jersey where the states facilitate an employee-paid payroll tax to provide paid parental leave, thus not placing the burden on the employer.

“Parental leave is actually relatively inexpensive to provide, especially as social insurance,” he said.

It’s hard to imagine a bill on paid parental leave action passing Congress when legislation on equal pay for women is turned into a controversial, anti-business agenda.

Yet, it’s exactly these types of protections that will help America remain competitive in a difficult economy, as well as reinforce that societal sanctity—the family—that both presidential candidates praise in nearly every campaign stop.