When it comes to America’s kids, we’re (not) No. 1

If you want to know how the United States will fare tomorrow, take a look at how well our children are doing today. Unfortunately, the answer, for too many of our nation’s children, is: “Not very well.”

While the U.S. is the world’s wealthiest country, we rank 26th in child wellbeing. Children in Italy, Estonia and Slovakia all fare better than ours. Back in 1970 — a year after we put the first man on the moon — we ranked first in high school graduation rate. Today, we’ve fallen to 23rd.

Twenty-third is also where my home state of Ohio sits in overall child wellbeing among the 50 states, according to the annual KIDS COUNT rankings.

The richest democracy in the world ought to do better.

Fortunately, we can. One part of the solution lies within our grasp: paid family leave. Moms who have the time to recover from childbirth without fearing for their economic security are less likely to suffer anxiety and depression, while dads who take leave tend become more involved with their children.

The benefit for children can be seen in their long-term mental and physical health: parental leave is linked to lower rates of infant and child mortality, and to improved cognitive development in children.

Even businesses benefit from paid family leave, with reduced turnover and increased productivity. In California, one of three states already providing paid maternity leave, 90 percent of businesses report positive or neutral effects.

But here’s a sad truth: the United States is the only rich or middle-income country on the planet that doesn’t guarantee any paid parental leave by federal law. Germany provides 15 months of maternal or parental leave while Hungary offers two years.

In contrast, we ask parents to make a tradeoff that betrays the family values so many of our leaders profess. We tell mothers, “You can take time to recover from childbirth, bond with and nurture your new baby, but you’ll have to forfeit your pay, and perhaps even your job.” As a result, nearly one in four new mothers report going back to work less than two weeks after giving birth. Fathers are often left with even fewer options if they choose to take time after the birth of a child.

When did it become OK here in the United States to make parents choose between growing their families and keeping their jobs?

That’s why I cosponsored the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, introduced by my Senate colleague Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandMusic streamer Spotify joins Gillibrand’s push for paid family leave Gillibrand proposes sexual assault reforms for Merchant Marine Academy Podesta floated Bill Gates, Bloomberg as possible Clinton VPs MORE (D–N.Y.) and in the House by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D–Conn.). The FAMILY Act would help working families care for a new baby or deal with a serious health condition faced by a family member by providing workers with up to 12 weeks of paid leave at two-thirds of their pay (up to a maximum of $4,000 a month). It builds on what works, extending our nation’s most effective antipoverty program for seniors and disabled workers to also cover paid family medical leave.

To help raise awareness of the importance of family leave, Gillibrand and I — along with Sen. Patty MurrayPatty MurrayWhat the 'Bernie Sanders wing of the GOP' can teach Congress Senate Dems demand answers from Wells Fargo over treatment of military A fight for new rights MORE (D-Wash.), DeLauro and Rep. Bobby ScottBobby ScottVA Dems jockey for Kaine's seat House votes to delay Obama's overtime rule Overnight Tech: Lawmakers, tech talk diversity | Group raises security worries over internet handoff | FCC commish wants probe into debate Wi-Fi MORE (D-Va.) — hosted a congressional viewing of The Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation.As I watched the opening hour of this powerful documentary, it became clear to me that our current policies harm not only children and parents, but the nation as a whole.

The Raising of America can be viewed in its entirety (a total of five episodes) for free from February 1 through February 15 at www.raisingofamerica.org.

Pediatrician Renée Boynton-Jarrett observes in the movie, “Parents are working really hard to care for their children, to support their families, to be engaged and productive citizens and members of the community. At the same time, it can be like the dice are loaded against them.”

The result is parental anxiety and stress — stress that, as shown by the 20-year Wisconsin Study of Families and Work and other scientific studies highlighted in The Raising of America, can literally alter their young children’s developing brains.

The consequences can be devastating, not only for their future emotional and physical health but for the future health, prosperity and equity of the nation. By under-investing in parents and early childhood, we are also under-developing America.

But it’s not too late. There’s still time to change direction. Let’s start by asking how organizations, communities, states and the nation can better help moms and dads be the parents they want to be and improve every child’s chances to realize his or her greatest potential.

Let’s start by passing the FAMILY Act.

Brown is Ohio’s senior senator, serving since 2007. He is ranking member of the Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs Committee, and also sits on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; the Finance; and the Veterans’ Affairs committees.