October marks two milestones that can drive change for families with young children - it is both National Work and Family Month, as well as the last month of the presidential campaign. Throughout the month, hardworking American families will tell their stories and advocates will outline commitments to help them. We will likely continue to hear mentions of issues like child care and paid family leave on the campaign trail. Campaign plans and ideas are often heavy on rhetoric, but light on details. In truth, real solutions necessary to help move families from hardship to security already exist, but they require increased attention and resources to ensure they can have an impact.
The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act--or the FAMILY Act--for example, would help new parents get the time they need to bond with their newborns and newly adopted children, without compromising their economic security. The FAMILY Act would provide workers with up to 12 weeks of partial income when they take time for parental leave, their own serious medical condition, or a family member's extended illness. In the case of parents with a new baby, unhurried time helps them become attuned to the marvelous development occurring in that tiny, but demanding infant. A recent study conducted by ZERO TO THREE and the Bezos Family Foundation found parents' understanding of their baby's brain development is incomplete. While they understand that brain development begins early, they assume it doesn't start in earnest until around age three. In fact, babies' brains are building important connections from day one and are influenced most significantly by the everyday moments they experience with parents and caregivers. Those earliest days, weeks and months are critical.
As it stands today, just 13 percent of the workforce receives paid family leave through their employers. Less than 40 percent have personal medical leave through an employer-provided disability program, which provides partial pay to women recovering from pregnancy and childbirth. The percentage of employers providing fully-paid maternity leave through a disability program fell from 16 percent in 2008 to just nine percent in 2014, leaving most working moms and dads without access to paid leave. This denies parents and their very young children the benefits of early bonding which sets the foundation for healthy emotional and cognitive development. It takes several months of focused attention to become a responsive parent to a young child, and the capacity to recognize a parent's voice, smell and face develops around three months old. Positive, consistent relationships during a baby's earliest days result in individuals who are better equipped for success in school and in life--paving the way for bigger returns down the road, including a higher-quality workforce and strong economic growth.
Not all illnesses are serious and long-lasting, but workers need time to attend to these as well. Yet, amazingly, many workers don't have this benefit. A national policy for paid sick days would give workers the time to attend to their own health needs as well as their children's. The Healthy Families Act, for instance, would allow workers in businesses with 15 or more employees to earn up to seven job-protected paid sick days each year to be used to recover from their own illnesses, access preventative care, provide care to a sick family member, or attend school meetings related to a child's health condition or disability. This gives parents the assurance they need to attend to their own health and the health of their children without fear of losing ground in the workplace--or worse, losing their jobs altogether. Right now, 53 percent of working moms and 48 percent of working dads don't have paid sick days to care for an ill child. That is despite the fact that when parents can attend to a child's early medical needs, infant mortality and the occurrence and length of childhood illnesses are reduced; the presence of a parent shortens a child's hospital stay by 31 percent. These outcomes in turn have a positive impact on our collective private and public health expenditures. And when parents have the peace of mind that they can care for their children without compromising their work, businesses benefit from increased worker productivity and retention.
In conjunction with paid leave, ensuring that quality, affordable child care is readily accessible for all families is crucial for today's working parents. It is my firm belief that child care fuels both the country's economic engine and its future workforce--its teachers, builders and thinkers - and the burden of cost is one that must be addressed. In 33 states, child care costs more than college tuition at a state university. Nationally, paying for infant care takes 40 percent of a single mother's paycheck--that is, if care can be found at all. Child care assistance for low-income families today reaches only 1 of every 6 eligible children, and the number is declining. As a result, providers are effectively subsidizing--with low wages--what parents simply cannot afford. Average child care wages are at the bottom of the occupational ladder at just over $10 an hour, despite extensive research showing that better paid staff are associated with better quality care. Low wages inhibit the ability to attract well-qualified staff. Those who do take the jobs may be hard-pressed to give babies the responsive care needed for positive development when they may be worried about how they are going to pay the rent and put food on their own tables.
The result is poor to mediocre care at a time of life when individual attention is at its most critical. In the first three years of life, brain connections form at the rate of 700 to 1,000 a second, laying the foundation for all future learning. Positive interactions with nurturing caregivers reinforce the connections that will make this foundation strong. That means it is wise to invest in a higher quality of care as soon as possible to ensure these young learners are ready for pre-K and beyond. This will stave off more costly needs down the line--such as behavioral and remedial education.
We can't presume to know what every family needs to be successful. But we do know that when parents are supported in giving their children a strong start in life - whether through paid family leave or quality child care - we create healthier work environments, a more prepared future workforce and a stronger community - fiscally, emotionally and intellectually.
If the new Congress and a new administration want to get off on the right foot with hard-working families, they must commit to policies designed and proven to improve outcomes for young children. This National Work and Family Month, let's hold our candidates to a real commitment to hard-working families by demanding meaningful policy adoption and implementation. It's time to move from rhetoric to reality.