Thursday, September 17, 2015

Parental Leave as a Policy

Yesterday I detailed what appears to be rising demand -- or at least agitation to generate rising demand -- for paid parental leave.   The idea is for mothers and fathers of newborns and adopted children to stay home with them in their early infancy.  

Promoters of these policies seem to assume that parental leave is an essential and unmixed blessing.  

I honestly don't see it.

1.  Most of the employers offering paid family leave do so only to high-earning workers.  (At Netflix, for instance, paid parental leave is available to IT experts but not lower-paid warehouse workers.) And when you think about it, high-income families are the ones best able to save money for and take unpaid leaves.  

2.  Most low-paid workers are now part-time employees, ineligible for company-paid health insurance.  If a new policy were adopted by a company or a government agency, it probably would not cover part-time employees.  

If a new policy DID require paid parental leave for part-time employees, the cost to employers would increase.  So would the incentive to replace low-wage workers wherever possible.  

     (The New York Times reporter who seems to be on the parental leave beat
     visited a new kind of food service company in San Francisco recently. Her
     report reflects puzzlement about the loss of restaurant jobs:

     ("The restaurant, Eatsa, the first outlet in a company with national ambitions, is 
     almost fully automated. There are no waiters or even an order taker behind a 
     counter. There is no counter. There are unseen people helping to prepare the 
     food, but there are plans to fully automate that process, too, if it can be done 
     less expensively than employing people."

     (Eatsa is the first such company to attract national attention, but it is by no 
     means unique.  I encountered a similar concept in San Diego last month.  It is 
     called idessert, and I imagine its investors also plan to expand by selling pricey 
     products in stores with very few workers.)

Like it or not, this is the future.  As the number of low-wage jobs declines, there is some hazard to raising the cost of such employment.

3.  Families are different.  A top-down, one-size-fits-all idea will not work for everyone.  
Many families -- including Hispanic, African American and Asian ones -- are more tightly knit than Anglo upper-class two-income families.  Child rearing in these families more often is shared. Given the option, such parents almost certainly would prefer savings for education to time for infant bonding.  

Other workers have their own reasons for doing things differently. Ambitious people who want to provide a good family income might agree that the parent with primary child-raising responsibility should take the day shift for a baby's first few months. Now such parents are sometimes castigated rather being respected for their own private decisions. 

4.  I have one thing to say to new parents who assume that full-time bonding with a newborn is essential to good parenthood:  Come and talk to me in 15 or 20 years.  Here's why:

Children's needs come up at different moments and rarely are clustered in early infancy.  Think about a child who is diagnosed as autistic.  Or is bullied by mean girls in middle school.  Or is assigned to an incompetent teacher.  Or contracts leukemia.  Or develops substance-abuse problems.

Unanticipated challenges are more common than not. These are times when parents need to clear the decks and support their children.  I believe these are the most important bonding situations.
If an employment policy allowed flexibility -- letting parents take leaves when their children need them most -- I could sort of see it.  But demanding universal leaves only for parents of infants just seems short-sighted. 

4.  This is not the biggest issue we have with children.  Two years ago it was revealed that Medicaid pays for 45 percent of infant deliveries in the U.S.  Improving family incomes may provide bigger payoffs long-term than a parental leave policy.

5.  The constant refrain that all other developed countries provide parental leave sounds convincing until you consider the circumstances of those countries.  Europe's unemployment rate is twice that of the U.S., and much higher for young adults of childbearing age.  Even with lavish leave policies, European families are having far fewer children than American ones.  

In Japan, another country with that provides parental leave, families are having so few children that that sales of adult diapers are now greater than sales of baby diapers.  

If the goal is to support family formation -- and it should be -- paid parental leave doesn't seem to be having much of an effect.

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