Being a parent is hard. It’s harder in the United States than other rich countries because American public policy fails to provide even the most basic supports for families. American families struggled meeting their needs pre-pandemic — a problem exacerbated by stagnated wages and a government run according to a radical notion of self-reliance, virtually nonexistent in the politics of other high-income liberal democracies.
As we begin to dig out from the darkest depths of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s necessary to evaluate how the United States can better support families and provide all of America’s children with the opportunity to succeed. President Biden’s American Families Plan, the most consequential piece of family policy legislation in American history, begins to provide such supports. Three plan provisions are most critical: subsidized universal child care, guaranteed paid family and medical leave, and expanded child tax credits.
The AFP helps families using childcare limiting costs to 7% of income for families using services and providing expanded tax credits to help pay for these critical services. Disadvantaged families stand to benefit the most. Poor and working-class households frequently spend more than a tenth of their income on child care alone. Launched in 1996, Québec’s universal child care program has positive effects on both family finances and the provincial economy.
In the United States, the pandemic has highlighted the need for child care. Many women have voluntarily left the workforce to school and care for homebound children. Introducing child care supports is foundational to both helping the economy recover from COVID-19 and for future, post-pandemic economic growth. Critically, low-income Québécois children have reaped substantial developmental benefits from these programs, as well.
A second key provision of the plan is 12 weeks of paid family leave, paid at 66% to 80% of regular pay, depending on income level. The United States is the only rich nation and one of three countries in the world that lacks paid maternity leave. It is one of three without paid paternity leave. It should be viewed, frankly, as a national embarrassment that such legislation is only now being proposed.
The evidence is unequivocal: paid family leave has significant benefits for families. Children are healthier, meet developmental milestones, and do better in school when one or both parents take leave. Mothers are less stressed and recover from childbirth more quickly with leave. Fathers who take leave are more satisfied with parenting and experience improved mental health when they take leave.
Leave policies have effects beyond individual benefits, as well. My own analysis of paternity leave policies across the world’s 30 richest nations demonstrates that the generosity of government guarantees for paternity leave improves women’s representation in government and closes gendered pay gaps. Businesses, meanwhile, benefit financially from worker retention, productivity, loyalty, and increased competitiveness in the marketplace.
Finally, monthly child tax credits could fundamentally change the trajectory of child poverty in this country for generations. Data from Canada is illustrative. The Canada Child Benefit, initially passed by Conservatives in Ottawa, provides families with monthly financial supports aimed at offsetting childrearing costs. care benefit money directly supports children and is most commonly spent on children’s clothing, food, and other necessities.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., EITC payments are bundled in one’s tax return and is commonly spent on consumer debt, non-essentials, and adult-centric goods and services. The effect of CCB-style programs is undeniable. From 2013 to 2017, Canada’s child poverty rate was cut by 40%. Independent analysis shows the president’s plan may cut the number of impoverished American children in half.
Today, 14.4% of children live below the poverty line and many more live in financially perilous circumstances. Nearly 70% of impoverished children are Black, Indigenous or people of color. Expanded child tax credits not only attack the societal ill of poverty, they would also represent one of the most substantial pieces of racial justice policy in generations.
Being a parent is hard, but the American Families Plan provides much needed help.
Kevin Shafer, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University and research professor of health and society at McMaster University (Canada). His views do not necessarily represent the views of BYU, nor its sponsoring church.