Here’s how to pass family leave without failing another generation

My children were born to working parents — so was I and my brother, so my brother’s child. But all of us had the great fortune to be born into families that, although not wealthy, had the means and the choice to ensure that at least one parent could stay home during the children’s infancy. We had that precious time to bond with our parents and so did our babies.

If both parents could have taken leave, that would have been even better. But we are grateful for what we had. Parents bonding with their children during the most critical phase of their development is good for everyone, including the children’s children. Many nations recognize the importance of family leave and have made it a legal right, not just a perk for the well-off families. 

In the United States, instead of family leave for all, Americans endure congressional paralysis. This gridlock serves no one. The data are clear: the benefits reaped from healthy children raised in families less prone to financial adversities are non-partisan and far-reaching. Here are three ways to break an impasse and ensure the resulting policy actually works to further our most basic values:

First, understand that authorizing family leave is bipartisan. Most people think of paid family leave as a Democratic priority although the term “priority” may be overstating things since it never seems to make the cut in final versions of bills. Meanwhile, more than half of women who identify as Republicans support the solution as do many Republican men. It’s no coincidence that men (Democrats, too) tend to care less about parental leave and that bills containing seem doomed to limbo. Men make up the majority in Congress, and somehow the issue never seems to make it to a floor vote.

Still, odds are, more men would care about passing common sense family leave if they thought carefully about it. Most would acknowledge that society would be much stronger and safer if it were made up of people raised in loving households with enough to eat and access to good education and influences both in and out of the home. Our early childhoods disproportionately impact the rest of our lives.

While we like to think that laws and economic incentives determine how we interact with others and the quality of our lives. But early childhood shapes us and helps determine our ability to succeed, economically and socially. That reality makes investing in early childhood a priority. So, how do we do that? We treat the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child as the standard for family planning. We should reverse the current incentives that promote population growth and instead, promote convention-compliant birth and development conditions through incentivized delay and wealth redistribution. For example, we could eliminate the child-tax credit for anyone making over $100,000 a year while quadrupling it for families at the bottom of the income spectrum.

The second point builds on the first. The lack of political will on this issue is due at least in part to outdated science, and antiquated ideas. For example we wait until children are born to begin investing in them because we still see the acts of both having and not having children as based upon bodily autonomy, even though the former is hardly just about individuals. It also implicates future children and their communities. People on both sides of the political divide should be able to agree that future children have rights.

Larger family sizes of the past were unsustainable; and  had they not fallen the world population would be headed toward 14 billion persons or more by 2100, rather than 10 billion or 11 billion. These numbers show the enormous difference in world population that arise from small variations in family size. If we can achieve that modest reduction in number of children born, we can ensure a better quality of upbringing and achieve a lower and more resilient population than we have today.

Holistic early childhood development plays a key role conducive with upward economic status , as well as healthier approaches to parenting. Children from stable homes are less likely to engage in crime. This is not about altruism; it is about creating a better, more sustainable society. Paid parental leave is our best hope of keeping the American Dream alive.

Third, parental leave must be cost-effective. One way to do that is to tie it to family planning. Paid leave can sound like a blank check to anyone of child rearing age. Indeed, one of the typical fear-mongering tactics of the “demagogic right” is to invent horror stories of poor people having large numbers of children just to tap government entitlements. The racism and xenophobia embedded in such rhetoric obscures a genuine issue with providing open-ended economic incentives for parenting.

Responsible family planning needs to be a part of every parenting conversation — not just for those of limited means. Indeed, higher-income people have a greater environmental impact, including a higher carbon footprint. And the costs of that wastefulness on the environment and on our children are growing. There is a clear difference between irresponsible parental subsidies and prudent investment in our children’s prosperity.

Modern paid leave legislation should include provisions that give parents the means to be present for their children when the kids most need them, while also incentivizing parents. Investing in families means investing in our children and in the planet they will inherit. Being enlightened parents and better stewards are part and parcel to an American family leave bill that prioritizes both.

I learned that from my parents, and I wish the same freedoms for everyone. Our country is only as great as our children. Let’s give them what they need to thrive.

David Cassuto is professor of law and the Michael A. Calandra Jr. ’05 faculty scholar at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, as well as counsel to the Fair Start Movement.

Tags Child tax credit family leave family planning Parental leave

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