The Only Argument For Paid Maternity Leave: 'Because It Is Right'

It was a small study in an academic journal, but the website Quartz saw something larger. “The Economic Case Against Extended Maternity Leave,” opined the headline on Vickie Elmer’s story there.

But that is too simple an interpretation. Reading the study in question, which was released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, I came to the opposite conclusion: that this data reinforces the argument for time off for new parents.

Specifically, the study is a very narrow look at how incremental increases in the length of paid leave in Norway over the years were reflected in the economy. The conclusion: very long maternity leaves don’t create economic windfalls. “Even modest expansions, from 18 week to 20 weeks, or from 20 to 22 weeks, have no significant effect on outcomes” -- things like more taxes paid, higher future income earned, or even the educational achievements of children going forward. Looked at as a purely economic equation, the authors (economists from the University of Oslo, University of Bergen, University College London and the University of California San Diego) conclude that the cost of the Norwegian model is not worth it.

But that’s where their argument -- and any sweeping interpretations thereof -- misses the mark.

First, the underlying assumption of their findings is that there IS a social and economic benefit to maternity leave, and these data are merely a parsing of the details, a look at where the ADDED benefit slows and the curve levels off.

Second, extrapolating the Norway lesson to the US, as Quartz and others aim to do, is a hollow comparison, because we are hardly debating whether to increase our mandatory paid leave incrementally. The US has the dubious distinction of joining Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea as the only countries in the world that do not require paid leave for new mothers. So while it may well be true that 22 weeks is not measurably more beneficial than 20 weeks, that’s hardly relevant in a society that doesn’t even mandate six. Or, ya know, any.

And finally, who said economics is the reason to provide leave? Yes, there ARE economic incentives (increased employee retention, for instance) but even if there were not, our most important choices as a society are made for reasons that transcend the financial. By way of example, child labor laws and workplace safety regulations did not come about because they were good for business, but because they were good for workers.

Maternity leave is too. Previous studies from the same National Bureau of Economic Research have concluded, among other things, that longer leave is linked to better long-term health for children and lower rates of depression in mothers.

So even if this study somehow proved no economic benefit of leave (which it certainly does not) that falls far short of dismantling the argument in support of parental policies. Because the fact that it’s good business has always been just an added benefit to doing this. The only real reason is because it is right.

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