On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the extraordinary achievements and everyday contributions of women across the world and throughout time. When given equal access to education and opportunities, women improve the world around them. Unfortunately, a number of obstacles disproportionately disadvantage women worldwide, and public policy in the U.S. is no exception, particularly given the absence of federally mandated paid family and medical leave.
When compared to other industrialized countries, the U.S. is sorely behind so far as providing benefits to our citizens that we can absolutely afford and that our workforce needs. In 2018, we are still the only industrialized country without mandated paid parental leave. This leaves just 15% of all workers in our country with access to paid family leave through their employers, as the only federal mandate on family and medical leave enables qualifying employees to take unpaid but protected leave from their workplace. This legislation was a good start, but in the 25 years since it’s passage, women, in particular, and the families they support have suffered financially.
First, it must be acknowledged that women make just 80 cents for every dollar a man makes in the same field (women of color make even less). This puts them at a financial disadvantage from the start. Then, once you factor in that two-thirds of caregivers are women, with the average caregiver being a woman who provides 20 hours of unpaid work caring for her mother, an unpaid family and medical leave program is of no benefit to women who can’t afford to utilize it in the first place.
Moreover, according to slate.com, research shows that “paid leave is associated with reduced infant mortality, improved child and maternal health, and higher labor force participation for women, which equates to high family incomes and growth in the economy as a whole.” Without paid leave, we hold back these benefits from women and their families, as well as the marketplace. Fortunately, a solution has been proposed.
Last year, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave, or FAMILY, Act. It “would create a universal, gender-neutral paid family and medical leave program” by adding a payroll tax of approximately $1.50 a week in order to “provide up to 66 percent wage-replacement for 12 weeks in the event of a serious personal or family medical emergency.” It had 27 cosponsors as of last month, yet Republicans appear to to be creating their own legislation.
The plan Republicans are reportedly drafting would fund paid parental leave by allowing parents to tap into their Social Security (SS) benefits. On the surface, this might seem like a good plan as SS is not just for retirees but is also available to children with deceased parents and disabled citizens. However, this would exacerbate the already dire financial situation of aging female workers. Women disproportionately rely on SS benefits when they get older, and essentially would be borrowing on their future by having children or caring for relatives under the supposed Republican plan. With women generally accounting for the majority of elderly citizens who require a caregiver (women live longer than men, tend to outlive their spouses, and have less access to retirement savings), this plan would perpetuate the cycle of younger women caring for elderly women without easing the financial burden on the caregiver or the one receiving care.
Throughout Women’s History Month, we reflect on women’s contributions worldwide and how governments and communities all over can do better to make the world more equitable for everyone. With this in mind, the Republican response to paid leave is a major step backwards. This time next year, when we celebrate the 42nd International Women’s Day, we could also be commemorating America joining the rest of the industrialized world by passing cohesive, thoughtful paid leave legislation.