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Break for new parents helps us all
By Cindy Richards
May 18, 2005
America ought to be a place where the birth of a child is a glorious event, rather than the beginning of a family's economic ruin.
Sadly, it's not. Instead, 25 percent of all spells of poverty in the United States start with the birth of a child, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families.
The nonprofit's newest report, ''Expecting Better: A State-by-State Analysis of Parental Leave Programs," opens with the chilling thought that a new bundle of joy can lead to economic disaster. The report shows that although we Americans talk a good game about valuing families, we aren't putting our policies where our values are.
Illinois rates a dismal C-minus for its work and family programs. The only reason the grade is so high (relatively speaking) is because state employees have access to paid parental leave (15 days for women, 10 days for men) and are entitled to up to one year off without pay to care for a newborn. There are no state laws covering private employers.
Still, we're doing better than most of our neighbors. Only Wisconsin scored higher (C), and Ohio tied us with a C-minus. Iowa scored a D-plus, while Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan each rated a D-minus, and Missouri flunked altogether.
If it weren't for two federal laws -- the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, passed way back in 1978, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993 -- most states wouldn't be doing anything at all to support working families.
''This is not a red state or blue state issue,'' said Jodi Grant, director of work and family programs for the National Partnership for Women & Families, which advocates paid leave for working parents. ''This should unite red state [conservatives] and blue state [progressives] because it's all about family values that are so important to the health of children and families.''
America is one of only five countries that does not guarantee any paid leave to working parents (the others are Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and Australia, although Australia guarantees up to one year of unpaid leave). A Harvard University study of work and family policies around the world found that 163 guarantee paid leave to moms in connection with childbirth and 45 guarantee paid leave to dads.
Paid leave is critical because it increases the chances workers -- particularly those at the low end of the pay scale -- can afford to stay home with a newborn. And that is critical because babies whose moms are home with them are more likely to be breastfed for a longer period and more likely to visit the doctor regularly and get all of their immunizations, studies show.
''With all that we know about how important having access to paid family and medical leave is to the health of children and families, it is abhorrent we're not doing more,'' said Rhonda Present, founder of ParentsWork, an Evanston-based advocacy group.
One reason for that is Americans view the decision to have or adopt a child as a private choice made by a couple, she said. So we figure society has no responsibility to help them deal with that choice once it's made.
But there is a public benefit to good parenting. ''If we do it well, we're going to have a healthier, more productive work force in future generations," Present said.
Even that business-friendly argument isn't enough to persuade legislators to do more for Illinois families. A plan to offer paid leave for family or medical reasons never made it out of committee this session. The Family Leave Insurance Program would have required employers and employees to pay 75 cents a week each into a fund.
In return, employees would be able to take up to four weeks of paid leave and receive up to 67 percent of their wages, with a cap of $380 a week.
Other states do it better -- California, New York, New Jersey and Hawaii, to name a few -- and at relatively low cost.
It's hard to believe that $40 a year -- about what it costs to take my family out for breakfast on Sunday morning -- is too much for Illinois workers and employers to spend to ensure that a new baby brings joy rather than economic doom.
For more information on ParentsWork, send an email to email@example.com.