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Journal Issue: Caring for Infants and Toddlers Volume 11 Number 1 Spring/Summer 2001

International Policies Toward Parental Leave and Child Care
Jane Waldfogel

Parental Leave Policies

Until 1993, the United States was one of the few industrialized countries without maternity leave legislation. Even since the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in that year, the United States still stands out as having particularly minimal legislation. This section reviews the provisions of the FMLA, compares it to the legislation of other countries, and summarizes evidence about the impact of such legislation on parents and children.

Family Leave in the United States

The FMLA provides the right to a short (12-week), jobprotected parental leave for workers who meet qualifying conditions (that is, those who work in firms of at least 50 employees and have worked at least 1,250 hours in the prior year). Because of these qualifying conditions, fewer than one-half of the nation's private-sector workers are eligible for leave guaranteed by the FMLA.5,6 A further limitation of the FMLA as a family leave policy is that it does not include any income replacement or pay during the leave; as a result, some workers who are eligible for leave do not take it.7 (See the article by Asher and Lenhoff in this journal issue.)

In spite of these limitations, the FMLA has had quite a dramatic impact on parental leave coverage in the United States, especially for male workers as few men previously had the right to a paternity leave.5 However, the impact of the law on parental leave usage has been less pronounced. Studies thus far have found generally small effects of the U.S. law on leave usage by new mothers,8–11 and they have found no discernible effects on leave usage by new fathers.11 The fact that the law extended coverage, but had so little impact on usage, suggests that there are limits to the extent to which families are willing and able to use the unpaid leave offered under the FMLA. Given the financial constraints that families with new children often face, taking leave without pay may simply not be an option for many of them.

Leave Policies in Other Nations

The parental leave policies in the countries described here12-14 differ from those in the United States in three major respects. First, the policies of other countries tend to provide a longer period of leave—an average of 10 months of childbirth-related leave in the developed nations that make up the OECD.12 Second, other countries' policies typically provide some form of wage replacement (for parents who were employed prior to the birth) or income supplementation (for parents who were not employed prior to the birth).15 Third, the policies of the other countries tend to be universal, covering all new mothers (maternity leave), all new fathers (paternity leave), or all new parents (parental leave). These cross-country differences reflect the historical origins of these policies. In countries other than the United States, maternity leave policies were introduced more than a century ago as a way of protecting the health of women and children.12 Seen from a health perspective, it is not surprising that these policies provide for sufficient time off from work for a woman to recover from childbirth and to be home breast-feeding, that they provide income support as well as time off, and that they are universal in coverage.

When one compares the United States to peer nations, the differences in parental leave policies are striking, as can be seen in Table 1. In contrast to the United States, which offers fewer than three months of leave following childbirth and no wage replacement, Canada offers more than six months of childbirth-related leave (17 weeks maternity leave, plus 10 weeks of parental leave), and all but two weeks of the leave are paid at the rate of 55% of prior earnings. In the advanced European countries in Table 1, the periods of leave—nearly all paid—are even longer. The Nordic countries have very generous leave policies, ranging from 18 months in Denmark and Sweden, to three years in Norway and Finland. The continental European countries are also generous in comparison to the United States, guaranteeing leaves that range from 11 months in Italy to 3.3 years in Germany. Most similar to the United States, the United Kingdom lacked universal coverage until recently, but it now provides 18 weeks of maternity leave to all new mothers, paid as a percentage of prior earnings or as a flat rate depending on the woman's prior employment status. The United Kingdom recently added an unpaid parental leave of up to 13 weeks, which can be taken by a mother or father any time during the first five years of a child's life.

Take-up of these parental leave policies is very high, particularly on the part of women, and so too is reported satisfaction with them.12,14 As would be expected, leave policies significantly influence women's employment and leave-taking behavior. When leave periods are extended or when benefits become more generous, women take longer leaves; similarly, when leave benefits are curtailed, women take shorter leaves.16 Men, in contrast, have been much less responsive to changes in leave policies—even in Sweden, the country that has made the greatest effort to promote paternity leave.17 Thus, a number of countries are now experimenting with ways to induce fathers to take more leave. One provision that has been tried in countries, such as Norway and Sweden, is the introduction of "use it or lose it" policies that provide additional leave time for the family that can be used only by the father.13

Costs and Benefits of Long Leaves

There is no consensus internationally as to how long parental leaves should last. Lengthy leaves—extending beyond the first year of life into the second and third year, and taken predominantly by women—have both costs and benefits.18

On the down side, a long period of leave may make it harder for a woman to maintain her attachment to her employer and advance in her career. There may be negative effects on wages for women overall19 because long leave periods may lead employers to view women as temporary employees and refrain from hiring, training, and promoting them. The fact that it is mainly women who take leaves and bear these consequences raises concerns about the extent to which lengthy parental leaves may impede progress toward gender equity in the labor market. A related concern is that lengthy leaves also reinforce the traditional gender division of labor in the home. There are also potential connections between more generous leave policies and higher rates of fertility, although there may also be offsetting effects that reduce fertility (if, for instance, longer leaves were associated with reduced infant mortality, which in turn would reduce subsequent fertility).20 Moreover, exclusive parental care that extends into the second and third year of life may not be optimal for children's development. (See the article by Phillips and Adams in this journal issue.)

However, on the up side, longer leaves that extend beyond the first few months of life are associated with improved health outcomes for women and children.21,22 These beneficial health effects may come about in part through breast-feeding. Breast-feeding is associated with better health outcomes for children,23 and women who take leave are more likely to initiate breast-feeding and to continue the practice for a longer period of time.24 Leaves that extend beyond the first six months of life are also associated with higher rates of employment for women of child-bearing age,19 presumably because such policies provide an incentive for women to be employed before having children.

There may also be links between longer leaves and improved child development outcomes. A number of studies in the United States have found adverse effects on cognitive development or behavioral problems for children whose mothers work in the first year, particularly for those whose mothers work early and/or long hours in the first year of the child's life.25 These effects tend to be small, are not found for all children or in all studies, and may not persist beyond the preschool years. This literature, nevertheless, suggests that some children might do better along some dimensions if their mothers had the chance to stay home for a longer period of time in the first year of life.

Thus, in thinking about lessons to be drawn from other countries, the United States should strive to get the balance right. Expanding parental leave provisions—so that leaves extend beyond the 12 weeks currently available under U.S. legislation, are universally available, and are paid—would clearly have many positive benefits for women and children. If the leaves extended into the second and third year of life, however, the risk might arise that women would become too detached from the labor market, with adverse consequences for their own careers and for those of other women. Also children who were in exclusive parental care during the first three years of life might become too socially isolated. Fortunately, however, there is plenty of room in the United States for significant parental leave expansions without running these risks. Extending the total duration of childbirth-related leave to 10 months (the OECD average), and providing universal and paid coverage (as other countries do), would be prudent next steps.