Being a working parent is relatively tough in the United States, thanks to a lack of policies guaranteeing flexibility, paid leave and affordable childcare. But the White House is aiming to change that this year with major policy summit on Monday and a months-long, multidimensional campaign to elevate the conversation about how federal policy can help parents juggle the demands of life and work.
The U.S. is one of only three countries in the world, along with Papa New Guinea and Oman, lacking guaranteed paid maternity leave for working moms, according to the United Nations. Most developed countries require employers to provide some amount of paid maternity or paternity leave, paid family and sick leave, and affordable early childhood education for their workers.
The U.S. lags significantly behind other developed countries in all of these areas. As a result, a relatively low percentage of women participate in the workforce. In 1990, the U.S. had the sixth-highest female labor participation rate among 22 of the world's wealthiest countries. Today, the U.S. ranks 17th.
Infographic by Alissa Scheller for The Huffington Post.
The reason the U.S. is falling behind, according to White House economic advisers, is the nation's policies for working parents have not kept up with the reality of the 21st century American family. Today, in more than 60 percent of U.S. families with children, both parents in the household work. In 1965, only 40 percent of families with children had both parents working. But despite the increase, the nation has not adapted to make it easier for working parents to balance their jobs with the economic and logistical difficulties of raising families.
"At a time when women make up about half of America’s workforce, outdated workplace policies that make it harder for mothers to work hold our entire economy back," Obama said in his weekly address to the nation on Saturday. "But these aren’t just problems for women. Men also care about who’s watching their kids. They’re rearranging their schedules to make it to soccer games and school plays. Lots of sons help care for aging parents. And plenty of fathers would love to be home for their new baby’s first weeks in the world."
The White House and Democrats in Congress are in the midst of an effort to elevate the national discussion this year about policies that they believe benefit working parents. Democratic congresswomen took a bus tour across the country earlier this month to talk to women about their economic agenda, which includes paid sick and family leave, affordable childcare, raising the minimum wage and strengthening equal pay protections for women. And the White House, the Department of Labor and the Center for American Progress on Monday will host the Summit on Working Families, which will include multiple panel discussions with top administration officials, business leaders, lawmakers and working families about ways to help working parents have a work-life balance and make ends meet.
"One study shows that nearly half of all parents, women and men, report that they’ve said no to a job, not because they didn’t want it, but because it would be too hard on their families," Obama said. "When that many talented, hard-working people are forced to choose between work and family, something’s wrong. Other countries are making it easier for people to have both. We should too, if we want American businesses to compete and win in the global economy."
Current federal law entitles eligible employees to up to three months of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a new baby or sick family member or to recover from a serious health condition. But the policy only covers about 60 percent of American workers, and even the workers who are eligible to take the leave often cannot afford to lose a paycheck for those three months.
Senior economic advisers to the White House have calculated that implementing the policies championed by the Democratic congresswomen would significantly increase female labor force participation, boost the economy and give the United States a competitive edge at a time when the baby boomer generation is set to retire out of the workforce.
"We have lower population growth and lower labor force participation growth right now than we have seen in previous decades because of baby boomers going into retirement," Betsey Stevenson, a White House economic adviser, told The Huffington Post. "Adopting these policies would increase our long-run growth by keeping women with young children in the workforce. We estimate that if we close the male/female employment gap, we would expand our GDP by 9 percent, and that would put us on a much stronger growth path than we're on now."
In addition to boosting female labor force participation, Stevenson said the policies Democrats are proposing will help employers save money and retain employees. Google, for instance, expanded its paid maternity leave from three to five months in 2012, and its retention of female employees nearly doubled. Keeping employees saves a company the cost of having to hire and train a new employee and the productivity lost during that transition period.
"There are an enormous number of business case studies showing that for many businesses, adopting more family friendly policies is good for their bottom line," Stevenson said.
The White House Summit on Working Families will be a broad discussion among policymakers, employers and working parents about ways to implement family friendly work policies, but Obama will also use the event to urge lawmakers to pass a few specific legislative proposals pending in Congress. The FAMILY Act would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave each year to qualifying workers for an illness, the serious illness of an immediate family member, or the birth or adoption of a child, and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would require employers to make certain accommodations for pregnant women that allow them to keep their jobs.
"This should be a nonpartisan issue, because it affects every woman in the country who has been pregnant," Valerie Jarrett, Obama's top adviser, told reporters on a conference call Sunday. "So far we haven't seen any interest from Republicans in the House or Senate for supporting the legislation."
Earlier this year, Senate Republicans blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have held employers more accountable for pay discrimination based on sex.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the president's economic agenda "political theatre" and announced Republicans' agenda for working families, called "A Fair Shot for Everyone." The agenda includes legislation that would give parents a tax deduction for their home office if they have a baby crib, repeal the Affordable Care Act’s rule requiring larger companies to give insurance to employees working over 30 hours each week, and allow employers to offer workers the option to exchange overtime pay for comp time.
“While the Obama administration has been playing politics,” McConnell said on the House floor, “Republicans have been quietly assembling a lot of good ideas aimed at helping middle-class Americans deal with the stresses of a modern economy.”
While none of the White House-backed proposals have passed Congress yet, Obama has already taken some executive actions toward implementing some of these policies for federal employees. He put in place a paid leave benefit for White House workers early on in his presidency. He has also recently signed three executive orders that raise the minimum wage for federal workers, extend family leave benefits to same-sex couples, and ban federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their salaries with each other.
"Family leave. Childcare. Flexibility. These aren’t frills -– they’re basic needs," Obama said. "They shouldn’t be bonuses -- they should be the bottom line."
The graphic in this story has been updated to reflect Sweden's parental leave length. Sweden provides a total of 480 days of paid parental leave. A total of 60 days are reserved for each parent, and half of the remaining 360 days are reserved for each parent.