Safety net series: Should the US embrace paid parental leave?


US is the only developed nation in the world that does not offer a guaranteed paid parental leave on a national level. This has some serious implications in health and wellbeing.

US has the highest infant mortality rate and percentage of children living in poverty in developed nations. Also overall, US’s educational, health and social outcomes are worse compared to other countries that embrace paid parental leave.

Countries that offer paid parental leave have a much lower infant mortality rate–and it has been found that increased generosity in family policies is typically linked to lower infant mortality and child poverty rates in several developed countries.

Take for example, the Scandinavian countries where parents get three years of protected job leave with one year of paid parental leave at full salary. They are among the top ranking countries in the world for low infant mortality rates. The under-five mortality rate is 3 per 1000 in Sweden and Norway, compared to 8 per 1000 in the US. They also have low poverty levels in families (including single parents) with children and their model is more effective in reducing poverty, particularly among children.

What is the possible mechanism between family policies and lower infant mortality and child poverty?

Income. And also increased parental time with child and breastfeeding, both of which are associated with a lower infant mortality rate.

Also, paid parental leave seems to be linked to better educational and financial outcomes for the children. Let’s see what happened to long-term results of children born in Norway before and after the introduction of paid parental leave in 1977. There were two cohorts of children born to working mothers in June and July 1977. They fell under:

  • Mothers who gave birth prior to July 1st 1977 were entitled to 12 weeks unpaid leave.
  • Those who gave birth after this date were entitled to 4 months of paid leave and 12 months of unpaid leave.

The long-term impacts of the group born to mothers with paid parental leave?

  • Increased time with the child:
    • 2.7% decline in high school dropout
    • 5% increase in wages at age 30
  • Bigger effects on children of mothers with less education:
    • 5.2% decline in high school dropout
    • 8% increase in wages at age 30

Paid parental leave should be universal in the US, for all types of employees and for both sexes.

This was written for my course taught by Sir Professor Michael Marmot at University College London, so sources are available upon request.


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