Family Leave Insurance: Before the Smoke Settles
"Holy smokes!" is how James Heckman, a Nobel prize winner in economics, enthusiastically reacted to the details of President Obama's early childhood education plans. Heckman's shout-out makes sense. One doesn't need to be a Nobel laureate nor an economist to see how this early education agenda could make a huge difference in providing opportunity to many more children. While the agenda is bold and multi-faceted and deserves high marks, it also missed a vital opportunity by neglecting to address paid family leave.
The early education agenda has three main parts:
■ Guaranteed pre-Kindergarten. Accomplished through a state-federal partnership and available to 4-year-olds in families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line,
■ Expanded Early Head Start. Funds would be awarded to expand services to vulnerable children ages 0 to 3; the goal is full-day, comprehensive services that meet the needs of working families.
■ Expanded home visiting programs for new parents. Funds would expand voluntary family participation in regular home visits from nurses from pregnancy through the child's second birthday;
This three pronged agenda forms a strong and important set of tools for ensuring equality of opportunity. A vital but missing piece, however, is time at home - time for working mothers and fathers to nurture and bond with newborns. Too many parents, including those who are the targets of these important early childhood services, find themselves having to go back to work too soon.
The nation just celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act; this law has provided millions of people with a chance to take job-protected time from work - up to 12 weeks - when a new baby arrives or when a serious illness strikes. However, the law excludes 40 percent of all workers; and there is no assurance of income for the 60 percent lucky enough to be eligible. As President Obama noted on the Anniversary, "There is still more work to do."
Why should working parents have the chance to bond with their babies? There are biological, psychological, and business reasons. First, mothers are better able to breast feed when they have this time, and this provides a wealth of health benefits for the infant. In 2011 The Surgeon General issued a call to action for paid leave because it boosts breastfeeding. In addition, leaves of adequate duration have been shown to improve the mental health of new mothers. And, such leaves can only enhance an infant's ability to form attachments to parents, a vital piece of child development. In addition, the ability of a worker to take job-protected leave increases the likelihood of a return to the job; these workers stay in the workforce. That helps the overall economy. Yet, about 10 million workers cannot afford to take parental leave at all or face stressful financial tradeoffs (such as putting off paying bills or needing to rely on public assistance) to get even a few short weeks with baby. Financial stressors and the cries of an infant are not a healthy mix.
The good news is that states are leading the way in implementing paid leave programs. California and New Jersey are operating paid leave insurance programs so new parents who take leave can get some of their wages while away from the job (some employers even "top up" to workers' full wages). Funds for the program come from employee payroll contributions - less than one half of one percent. An evaluation of California's program, the longest operating, found the vast majority of employers (89 percent) believe that family leave insurance had either a "positive effect" or "no noticeable effect" on their firms' productivity.
When it comes to early education, "Holy Smokes" neatly conveys the hosannas it deserves. Let us not wait, however, until the smoke settles on early education to secure what new families also need: family leave insurance.