Father’s Day highlights why paid paternity leave should be part of all U.S. parental leave policies
This Sunday is Father’s Day, a holiday in which we celebrate and acknowledge our relationships with fathers, grandfathers, father figures, and others in our lives who helped raise us. For some, this may be their first Father’s Day, but unfortunately for many new parents in the United States, paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child is anything but a guarantee.
Paid parental leave is one of the most fundamental ways to ensure workers can maintain a balance between professional responsibilities and family caregiving needs. Yet the United States is one of the only countries in the world that does not offer paid parental leave to all of its workers. Four in five private-sector workers in the United States and 95 percent of the lowest-paid workers—mostly women and workers of color—do not have access to paid family leave. This has a huge economic impact on workers, with one study finding the lack of paid family and medical leave options costs U.S. workers up to $22.5 billion in lost wages every year.
Though several states and cities in the United States have implemented paid family leave programs, many others have not. The Biden administration has made nationwide paid leave a cornerstone of the American Families Plan, an investment package to strengthen families and boost spending on care infrastructure in the United States. But until that legislation is enacted into law, access to this vital support for working families is contingent upon where they live.
Those who can access paid parental leave often rely on a patchwork of unpaid leave, employer-provided leave, and these state-level programs. The vast majority of parental leave is currently taken by mothers because “childcare, fairly or unfairly, is still seen as being a feminine role,” according to Equitable Growth grantee Joan C. Williams of the University of California, Hastings College of Law. Yet many scholars find that households in which fathers are more involved in parenting experience greater benefits for children’s development and heightened short- and long-term engagement for fathers with their children.
In fact, many countries that do offer a national paid leave guarantee are focusing now on the role of dads in caretaking, revising their programs to offer a specific paternal leave benefit for new fathers in addition to already-available maternity leave policies. This so-called “daddy quota” is meant to encourage fathers to take leave to bond with their new children without taking paid leave away from mothers—an effort to make clear that fathers taking paid leave for caregiving is a benefit for society.
One such country is Sweden, which, in 2012, reformed its paid parental leave program to make it easier for fathers to take time off. In a 2019 paper, titled “When Dad Can Stay Home: Fathers’ Workplace Flexibility and Maternal Health,” Petra Persson and Equitable Growth grantee Maya Rossin-Slater, both of Stanford University, studied the impact of this change on mothers’ postpartum physical and mental well-being. They found that fathers’ leave-taking significantly reduced mothers’ medical visits for childbirth-related complications, as well as reduced antibiotics and anti-anxiety drug prescriptions in the 6 months post-birth. According to the co-authors, this suggests that by allowing fathers to stay home and care for newborns, simultaneous parental leave also enables mothers to get the medical care and rest they need after birth.
Paternity leave also appears to have an effect on the gender wage divide. A 2018 paper, titled “Paternity Leave and the Motherhood Penalty: New Causal Evidence,” by Signe Hald Andersen of the Rockwool Foundation Research Unit, examines whether incentivizing fathers to take paternity leave affects household gender pay disparities. Looking at various changes to Denmark’s paid parental leave policy, including increased incentives to take time off, Andersen finds that Danish fathers nearly doubled their leave-taking from 8 weeks to 15 weeks when that was made available and that the overall impact on household wages was positive, reducing the gender wage gap within households largely due to increases in mothers’ wages.
Similar results were found in Québec after it left Canada’s Employment Insurance program in 2006 and established a provincial-level family leave program called the Québec Parental Insurance Program. QPIP expands the EI benefits in various significant ways, one of which is to set aside 5 weeks of leave for new fathers that cannot be transferred to mothers. A 2018 paper by Ankita Patnaik of Mathematica, titled “Reserving Time for Daddy: the Consequences of Fathers’ Quotas,” finds that the change in policy led to an increase in leave-taking by fathers. Patnaik also finds that QPIP contributes to greater gender equality both within households and out of the home, with more equitable distribution of household responsibilities between women and men, as well as additional time in the workplace for women.
The benefits of paternity leave also extend to child well-being and father-child bonding. A 2020 study by sociologists Richard J. Petts at Ball State University and Christ Knoester at The Ohio State University along with Equitable Growth grantee Jane Waldfogel at Columbia University’s School of Social Work looks at the associations between paternity leave and 9-year-old children’s reports of their relationships with their dads. The study, titled “Fathers’ Paternity Leave-Taking and Children’s Perceptions of Father-Child Relationships in the United States,” found that paternity leave, particularly of 2 weeks or longer, is positively associated with children’s perceptions of fathers’ involvement in their lives, emotional closeness, and communication between dads and their children.
These studies, along with many others from both U.S. states and localities and abroad, suggest that implementing a national paid family leave program that includes specific paternity leave provisions would be an opportunity to strengthen working families in the United States. This Father’s Day, policymakers in Congress currently debating President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan should move forward with plans to pass this vital guarantee for U.S. workers. The evidence is clear: Paid parental leave enhances parent-child bonds, reduces gender wage disparities, and benefits broader society and the economy.