Sunday, June 20, 2004

The United States is one of only a handful of countries that does not provide paid leave for new mothers, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study of 169 nations.

The United States, along with Lesotho, Swaziland, Papua New Guinea, and Australia, does not guarantee paid leave for mothers.

However, Australia offers four times as much unpaid leave as the United States, putting the United States way at the bottom of the heap even in unpaid leave, according to Dr. Jody Heymann, author of the Work, Family and Equity Index, designed to measure how U.S. public policy compares to that of other countries in meeting the needs of American working families.

“The world is changing dramatically, and the U.S. is not keeping pace when it comes to work, family and equity,” Miss Heymann, associate professor of society, human development and health at the Harvard School of Public Health, said Friday while speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing on work and family in the United States and around the world.

The United States is on the low end of all countries included in the index when it comes to parental leave. Ninety-eight of the countries examined offer at least 14 weeks of paid leave for women, 54 countries offer more than 20 weeks and 41 countries offer a maximum of one year (52 weeks) or more, according to the index. The United States guarantees a maximum of 12 weeks of unpaid leave per parent.

The flip side of this, Miss Heymann said, is that the United States has “a high percentage of kids in [privately funded] child care, even relative to other high-income countries.”

Experts agree that having one parent who can leave the work force to care for an infant has clear benefits for both the health of the mother and the development of the infant. Miss Heymann’s index finds that in the United States, “we were [already] behind, but we’re falling more behind.”

In early-childhood education, another indicator in Miss Heymann’s index, the United States tied for 38th place with Ecuador and Suriname. Miss Heymann said the United States “spends a relatively low percent of its GDP on this, and we need to spend more.”

At least 37 countries included in the index have policies guaranteeing some type of paid leave specifically for when children are ill; an additional 34 countries guarantee paid or unpaid discretionary leave. Forty-seven percent of the countries in the index guarantee 11 days or more. The United States does not guarantee paid leave for children’s health needs.

And the list goes on.

“Everybody agrees there’s no doubt that [children] need high-quality care,” Miss Heymann said. But U.S. policies make it very difficult for families to reach that level of care.

In 70 percent of U.S. working families, both parents work. This is “exactly the reverse of 1960, where 70 percent of American families had one parent at home taking care of the family,” Miss Heymann said.

This trend affects the future of children in the United States and who is available to care for them.

In a recent U.S. poll cited by Miss Heymann, 77 percent of likely voters said it was difficult for them to earn enough money and still have time for their families, and 84 percent agreed that their children paid the price.

“When it comes to ensuring decent working conditions,” Miss Heymann said, “the United States is far behind in almost all areas. This is particularly true when one examines the working conditions that are needed to care for children and other family members.”

When it comes to the right to work, however, the United States leads the pack.

“The United States is well-situated, in the company of many other countries that ensure the equitable right to work across racial and ethnic groups, for men and women, regardless of age or disability,” Miss Heymann said.

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