The United States is one of the only countries on the planet without a law mandating paid family leave.
The United States does offer twelve weeks of protected leave, thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. But protected leave is different from mandatory paid leave. Protected leave just means that companies can’t fire their employees for taking time off to have a baby or deal with a medical emergency.
Figuring out how to survive financially during those twelve weeks is up to the employees themselves. They either have to pull from savings, go into debt, or rely on a partner’s earnings — or some combination of the three.
And for the poorest women working the most precarious jobs, these options are often limited or unavailable, which means they end up going back to work long before they are physically or emotionally ready.
Some American companies — like Netflix — offer paid leave as a “perk,” often to their full-time, upper-level employees. But this means that women working part-time, lower-level jobs — who need paid leave the most — are disproportionately left out. And according to the United States Department of Labor, only 12% of Americans have access to paid leave through their employers.
The United States should have passed a mandatory paid family leave law a long time ago.
The policy would have helped decades of American women avoid financial precarity and build wealth. More importantly, it would have framed children as a right and a social good, not a consumer choice entitled only to those who can afford not to work.
Unfortunately, a mandatory paid family leave law might not protect everybody in the contemporary labor market. It would certainly have symbolic value, putting the United States in the company of the rest of the developed (and most of the developing) world.
But mandatory paid leave laws work best for people who have one employer. And an increasing number of people are freelancing, working part-time (often at multiple jobs) and finding work through temp agencies. A parent might be legally entitled to take paid time off, but if they are employed by a temp agency, freelancing, or working on a short-term contract, who provides the money?
In a world where labor is becoming increasingly casual and precarious, we should be looking for solutions that protect people regardless of employment status. That’s why a universal basic income — supplemented by a child allowance — might be a more effective way to provide for family leave.
With a universal basic income, the government would pay every citizen a small amount of money in perpetuity, with no strings attached.
With a universal basic income, the government would pay every citizen a small amount of money in perpetuity, with no strings attached. The idea is to create a wage floor, which allows people to meet their basic needs even in an economy where jobs are unstable, low-paying or hard to come by.
The idea of a universal basic income isn’t new. Thomas Paine proposed a form of it in 1797. But in the past few years, universal basic income has catapulted from into mainstream discourse.
It’s been touted as a solution to a variety of contemporary economic problems in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Forbes. Leftists support the idea for its potential to raise people out of poverty and provide a provide a bargaining chip for workers. Libertarians and economic liberals support it for its potential to simplify government bureaucracy, and let companies off the hook for low wages and casual employment practices.
But what does universal basic income have to do with parental leave?
With a universal basic income, people would always be earning a nominal amount of money, no matter their employment status. In theory, people could use this money to take time off from their jobs to have children.
“The feminist argument for a U.B.I. is that it’s a way to reimburse mothers and other caregivers for the heavy lifting they now do free of charge,” writes Judith Shulevitz at the New York Times. “The problem is not that employers hate women and children. It’s that they make a common assumption about motherhood: It’s a lifestyle choice, not a wage-worthy job, and no one other than parents should pay for it.”
Shulevitz’s argument echoes the arguments of the 1970’s Wages for Housework movement, which argued that the economy relies on women’s free work — reproduction, child rearing and housekeeping, and emotional labor — to function.
There are still major economic and ethical questions about what a universal basic income would like. How much money would a universal basic income consist of? Would it work in conjunction with existing entitlements or replace them? How would the government — and taxpayers — fund it? Would it be revenue-neutral (carved out of the existing budget), or would it require an increase in revenue (and taxation)?
“We use the term basic income as though we’re talking about a single, well-defined policy when in fact there are a lot of different things that go under the label of UBI,” Matthew Zwolinski, a professor of political philosophy at the University of San Diego told Quartz in February. “All the schemes have in common that they involve cash grants rather than in-kind benefits or stamps or vouchers.”
The idea of providing a universal basic income and a child allowance seems utopian. But the Dutch city of Utrecht instituted a universal basic income of £660 a month in 2015. And Finland is experimenting with replacing its national welfare system with a universal basic income of €800 a month. And many countries, like Sweden and Canada, already offer a child allowance.
It’s also important to remember that Social Security (enacted in 1935) and Medicare (enacted in 1966) were once fringe policies, deployed to help lift elderly Americans out of poverty. They were wildly effective at accomplishing this, and are now among the most popular government programs in the country.
Perhaps the United States can embark upon a similar initiative to help parents.