Rep. Sally Kern is taking some well-deserved criticism for her comments on the House floor that women and African-Americans do not work as hard as white men. Yet amidst the flurry of condemnations and apologies, we can find a legitimate policy idea reflected in her statements. It’s just not the one she thinks.
As Rep. Kern said, women want “to have a moderate work life with plenty of time for spouse and children and other things like that. They work very hard, but sometimes they aren’t willing to commit their whole life to their job like a lot of men do.”
Kern is on to something. Rather than only dwelling on the sexism of her statement, we should recognize that many Oklahomans, both women and men, want a moderate work life with more time for their families. Yet in too many careers, that is not possible.
Public policy contributes to this problem. For example, the U.S. is the only wealthy country in the world that doesn’t provide paid parental leave. Most developed countries provide an average of 18 weeks of paid maternity leave, with the option of taking additional job-protected unpaid leave. Sixty-six countries provide paid paternity leave. The programs are typically funded through payroll taxes so they do not become too burdensome on small businesses.
Since 1993, the US has required large employers to offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents or medical emergencies. State-based paid family leave programs were instituted in California in 2002 and New Jersey in 2009, and a paid leave program for Washington state is planned to go into effect in October 2012.
While the programs do mean some initial trade-offs in economic productivity, paid leave has been shown to bring substantial improvements in child health, which is particularly important for Oklahoma since we are 46th in the nation for infant mortality. And according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, “having scarce or no paid leave contributed to delaying babies’ immunizations, postpartum depression and other health problems, and caused mothers to give up breastfeeding early. Many who took unpaid leave went into debt and some were forced to seek public assistance.”
Improvements in early childhood have wide-ranging benefits over the long-term, helping children to perform better in school, reduce behavioral problems, and grow into more satisfied and productive adults. Over time, these gains would dwarf the initial cost of providing a few weeks’ pay for new parents.
Parental leave would help end gender disparities in the workforce as well. Though poorly expressed, Rep. Kern makes a legitimate point that society still puts more expectations on women to focus on child-rearing, sometimes at the expense of a career. Paid parental leave would level the playing field by not requiring men or women to choose between work and family.
Then there’s the more intangible benefits of reduced stress for new parents, improved quality of life, and stronger family values. Short-term economic growth is important, but it can’t be the only consideration for a healthy society. Paid parental leave would help Oklahomans be able to work to live, not just live to work.