Imagine you are a working mother and want to spend time with your newborn child but cannot because you live paycheck to paycheck. Any country in the Western Hemisphere would allow you to receive some form of monetary payment and at least have help paying the bills while taking off work except for one: the United States.
Movement is afoot to change this, however. President Obama said Monday the time has come for America to catch up with the rest of the world on maternity leave and personalized the issue by talking about the struggles of his single mother and the challenges that he and his wife, Michelle, had when their children were young. With the president weighing in, count on this becoming a campaign issue for the 2014 elections as well.
There is also a bill working its way through Congress to address this. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or the FAMILY Act introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), would offer workers 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds of their salary, up to $1,000 a week. While this does not sound like much, this is a huge raise over the current amount of zero under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides unpaid, job-protected leave for serious health events.
Based strictly on its merits, the FAMILY Act offers great promise considering the changing workforce. Current law is outdated especially when one considers the fact half of working mothers are unable to take time off to care for a sick child and 43% cannot afford to do so because it is unpaid. In addition, more women now graduate from college than men and are increasingly the primary breadwinners in a family. Giving working women more flexibility and a safety net is common sense.
But while the FAMILY Act has good intentions, it runs into two critical problems. The first problem is the cost. Providing paid maternity leave would mean investing more than $20 billion a year and with the nation facing a ticking debt bomb, this is something we cannot afford. Striking a long-term budget agreement needs to take precedence over passing a new government program.
The other problem is how the FAMILY Act would be financed. The Act calls for increasing the payroll tax for both businesses and workers, meaning that all working families would see a hike in their taxes, not just the wealthy. This is a tough sell in a mediocre economy and with the middle-class getting squeezed out. How many congresspeople are going to pound the table for paid leave when faced with this reality?
There are good arguments for paid maternity leave and should be addressed in the future. But right now the cost is too high.