Opinion: Why we need mandatory family leave in the United States

We can either spend money on the front end for family leave, or we spend even more money on the back end due to poor child outcomes

As a business school professor of 37 years, I often overhear conversations between my business students. One common question directed toward a female student is, “What are you planning to do after you graduate?” A few of these female students will reply: “I want to be a stay-at-home mom.” After an awkward pause, the questioner will often follow-up by saying something like: “OK, well, best of luck doing that.” 

If a male student is asked the same question and replies, “I want to be a stay-at-home dad,” there is an even a longer and more awkward pause, with the questioner then saying: “So why are you getting a degree in business if you’re just planning to stay home with your kids?” 

These types of exchanges suggest many believe that having parents stay at home with their children is not as important as taking a job outside the home.

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There are certain advantages to having both parents employed outside of the home: They could bring in more income for the family, provide a financial hedge should one spouse lose their job and they are given opportunities to apply their skills through a formal work environment. But research on child development out of Stanford, MIT and other academic institutions shows that having parents away from their children during their formative years can have some negative outcomes. Such research also indicates that the more contact that parents have with their children, the better the child’s emotional and behavioral outcomes. 

Thus, there are advantages and disadvantages to having both parents working, making this a particularly challenging issue, and parents need to make decisions regarding child care that are best for their family in their particular circumstances.

It’s unlikely that we’ll see the percentage of parents working outside the home change much in the United States (about 70% of mothers and 85% of fathers work outside of the home). The economics of life today make that unlikely. However, there are things that can be done to help working couples develop bonds with their children and create better work-life balance.

One provision in President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill is “family leave” — allowing parents to take time off, with pay, for four weeks after a child is born. Since there are provisions in the large congressional package that are costly, controversial and may fuel inflation, Congress should consider a standalone family leave bill that could generate bipartisan support. (Sen. Joe Manchin has suggested this approach.) 

Having mandatory family leave for a certain time period with pay and an additional time period without pay to allow parents the flexibility to be with their children during the first few years of their lives will help immensely in giving our children a better start in life and promote bonding between parents and children. Only the U.S. and Papua New Guinea don’t have some sort of mandatory parental leave. Other countries, such as those in Europe, have generous family leave, some giving paid leave (of various salary percentages) for several months and allowing unpaid leave — to be split between the parents — lasting significantly longer. 

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Both public and private organizations ought to provide similar family leave benefits with subsidies from the government for those organizations who may need help providing such benefits. We’re already seeing forward-looking companies creating a competitive advantage for themselves in the war for attracting talent by offering generous benefits aimed at cultivating time with family. 

We can either spend money on the front end for family leave to create more nurturing environments for our children and demonstrate that our society values parents raising their children, or we will have to spend even more money on the back end to ameliorate social ills due to poor child outcomes. Let parents have more flexibility to raise their children rather than having to make very difficult choices regarding work and family, perhaps reducing stress across a marriage or within the family. Furthermore, generous family leave might encourage more couples to have children, which is important since the birthrate in the United States (1.7 children per woman) is below the replacement rate with a trend line that looks bleak.

Both Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree on spending money to support parents with young children. Tax revenues spent for family leave would yield positive outcomes for both families and for society.

Gibb Dyer is the O. Leslie and Dorothy Stone Professor in Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business and author of “The Family Edge.”