Investing in America's Future: The Imperative of National Paid Maternity Leave

This research paper underscores the urgent need for a national paid maternity leave (PML) program in the United States by examining its far-reaching implications. Addressing the profound impacts on the health and economic well-being of American families, this paper advocates for a PML program funded jointly by the Federal Government and employers. The study highlights the potential benefits for maternal health, child development, gender equality, and economic growth, while exploring a hybrid model that balances the interests of businesses and government support.


5/5/202312 min read

grayscale photo of person holding baby
grayscale photo of person holding baby

According to the International Labour Organization, over 120 countries provide paid maternity leave, including health care coverage and child allowance. The United States is the only member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that lacks a national paid maternity leave (“PML”), resulting in a profound impact on the health and economic well-being of American families (Donovan, 2023). Economic insecurity is especially prevalent after the birth of a child and disproportionately affects low-income families. The 2017 US Census Bureau indicated that 17% of kids under 1 and 22% of 1-year-olds were living in poverty compared to the national US poverty rate of 12.7% (Stanczyk, 2019). The support provided by the PML would offset the increase in childcare expenses and the reduction in household income.

Maternity leave in the US comprises the mandated Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and a patchwork of state-dependent paid family leave programs that have proven insufficient to support low-income families. Currently, Americans face a decision to risk their job while caring for their newborn child, or risk the physical and mental consequences of an inadequate recovery from childbirth. Only 56% of Americans are eligible for the mandated FMLA, of which 77% of these employees are unable to take maternity leave due to financial constraints (Fass, 2009). This maternity leave construct has exacerbated the socioeconomic gap for low-income households in the United States, as the FMLA is tailored to high-income families who work in large businesses. The little paid leave available is also tailored to those who are educated and earn a higher income as only 6% of low-wage workers have access to paid leave compared to the 34% of high-wage workers (Goodman et al., 2020).

Based on this assessment on the effectiveness of US FMLA program and the global use of paid maternity leave, this begs the question: Should the United States mandate a national paid maternity leave?

Thesis for Consideration:

The United States should mandate a PML program in line with other industrialized countries, with 80% being funded by the Federal Government and 20% by employers. The societal impact of such a PML program will be significant for low-income households, with a widespread positive impact felt at the family level (mother and child), the US economy, and its future workforce.

Safeguarding the physical and mental health of the mother improves long-term health prospects

Even if all goes well, the adjustment to parenthood is a life-changing event with prolonged physical and mental impact on the mother. Pregnancy and birth have physical effects on the mother’s body, requiring adequate recovery time. Research indicates mothers who have access to PML have improved health outcomes, including a 51% decrease in the risk of hospitalization (Jou et al., 2017) and improved blood pressure, pain levels, exercise, and smoking behaviors (Bütikofer et al., 2021).

Further, PML positively impacts mothers’ longer-term health prospects by encouraging breastfeeding, reducing the likelihood of breast cancer. For every 12 months of breastfeeding, the “relative risk of breast cancer decreased by 4.3% with an additional 7.0% decrease in risk observed for each birth”. (Stordal, 2022). Not being able to take an appropriate length of PML hinders a mother’s ability to breastfeed, which may harm the mother’s long-term physical health. This is especially urgent in the United States as the average mother is having children later in life, which is increasing the risk of breast cancer.

In addition to physical health implications, many mothers experience postpartum depression after childbirth. The NICHD finds that “compared with mothers who waited at least 12 weeks before going back to work after childbirth, returning to work sooner is linked to greater levels of depressive symptoms, stress, and self-reported poor health” (Chatterji et al., 2011). This increase in distress was evident even 2 to 3 years later in women who took shorter maternity leave (Whitehouse et al., 2012). Having a lengthier PML reduces stress, and positively affects family dynamics. This may even help reduce intimate partner violence (Petts et al., 2019) and child maltreatment, as demonstrated in California after the implementation of its policy(Klevens et al., 2016).

Physical and mental resiliency of the child improves success of future generations

Likewise, PML has long term benefits for the child’s mental and physical health. Providing PML enables mothers more time to ensure their child has regular checkups and gets appropriate vaccinations. This will improve the child’s lifelong health given the preventative nature of certain childhood vaccines. A peer-reviewed journal found that with PML, children are 25.3% more likely to get the measles vaccine and 22.2% more likely to get the polio vaccine (Gault et al., 2014). This is because many mothers working paycheck to paycheck don’t have the time or insurance needed to cover the fees of vaccinations and checkups. PML provides the opportunity to improve the overall health of our country, while preventing the endless cycle of poverty arising from healthcare costs. A study found that “Women who took paid maternity leave experienced a 47% decrease in the odds of re-hospitalizing their infants (…) compared to women taking unpaid or no leave” (Jou et al., 2017). This is correlated to an increase in the likelihood and duration of breastfeeding, which promotes healthy infant brain development and prevents the triple burden of malnutrition, infectious diseases, and mortality. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of obesity and chronic diseases later in the child’s life (Pérez-Escamilla, 2023).

Not only does the mother’s depressive symptoms result in a longer recovery process for the mother, it also impairs the mother-child bond in the critical first few months. Differences in early brain activity among infants was reported in the Baby’s First Years study, an experimental trial of universal basic income for low-income mothers, further indicating that monetary assistance can influence early brain development (Troller-Renfree et al., 2021). Early attachments between mother-child are extremely valuable in instilling a sense of trust in the infant, which is proven to improve resiliency which is defined as “the ability to return to a previous and healthy level of functioning in the aftermath of a stressful situation,” (Rahill, 2016). Being attached to a supportive caregiver can buffer stress hormones from elevating in situations that cause an infant distress. (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000).

The importance of early emotional mother-child bond is directly expressed in the Migrant Mother image where Florence Thompson’s two toddlers and baby are leaning on her for support while she uncertainly looks out into the distance. This photograph was taken in 1936 in the midst of the Great Depression and Dustbowl in California which was a time in which the resilience of both mother and child was the defining factor of life or death. In this image, the mother is shown to be a symbol of female strength, while carrying the additional burdens of her children. She is trying to support them physically, but also mentally and emotionally as they seek her guidance during a period of stress brought about by hunger (Lange, 1936)

In fact, research done after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 concluded that one of the similarities between those who ended up becoming successful was having “an affectionate bond with a significant other” (Rahill, 2016).

This image along with the analysis after the Haiti earthquake not only exemplifies the importance of the mother-child bond but also how that can take a toll on the mother if she is not given the necessary resources to properly recover.

Investing in PML will have a profound future economic impact

Providing PML to mothers in need results in less dependence on public assistance, which many new parents without paid leave rely on in the US. Reducing public assistance will increase the US’s economic growth because it means that the government has more money to invest in other entities, such as ones that can help low-income parents get the resources, they need for their kids which is important as reinforced by Janique Kroese's economic strain model. Many parents without access to PML may not have resources to help their children focus on positive activities or may move to lower-income neighborhoods, exposing the children to peer delinquency. (Kroese et al., 2020). Conversely, we can utilize this model to conclude that the implementation of the PML can end the negative monetary trickle-down effect and close the socioeconomic gap in America.

The opposing opinion stems from the belief that “paid time away from work could lower employees’ attachment to their jobs, leading to discrimination against women” (Rosin-Slater, 2018) since women are more likely to take the paid leave than the men. However, during the second year of their children’s lives, mothers’ work hours increase by 18 percent, and their weeks at work increase by 11 percent, (Baum & Ruhm, 2014) proving that PML will help bridge the gender equality gap in the labor force as they become more productive. After California enforced their PML, 99% of employers reported having an increase in employee morale (Gault et al., 2014). Discrimination against women in the labor force already is prevalent due to the perception that women are more likely to take time off post-delivery, but PML will lessen that inequality. Women that receive PML have demonstrated a stronger labor force attachment, so enforcing it in all states will improve economic productivity and promote gender equality in the labor force.

A hybrid model maybe the most equitable path forward

The United States has the opportunity to model its solution on countries that have already promoted PML. These countries have seen significant positive impact on the children’s future, discrimination against women, and economic growth.

For example, the long-term impacts of the 1979 implementation of a four-month PML policy in Norway show a reduction in high school drop-out rates and an increase in income, especially in children from disadvantaged backgrounds. (Carneiro, 2015) Prior to 1979, Norway like the US currently, only mandated 12 weeks of unpaid leave. However, the success of Norway’s PML inspired other countries in Northern Europe to take similar measures.

One possible solution is to have a system like Austria which entails a 16-week paid maternity leave where social security pays for 100% of the wages. Although this will mean no direct cost to businesses, placing the entire burden on the government may not be acceptable to the nation’s voters. An alternative is to enact a program akin to Switzerland’s 14 weeks of paid maternity leave which is fully funded by the employer. Since the employer is responsible for paying the full wage, the paid maternity leave is shorter but does not require government intervention. However, evidence “found a significant correlation between the duration of paid maternity leave and positive mother-child interactions, such as secure attachment and empathy” (Leigh, 2020) so having a shorter PML may not be an ideal solution.

Therefore, a hybrid policy similar to Italy can be adopted. Italy has a compulsory paid maternity leave by the government that makes up 80% of their salary for 5 months. The rest of the salary is usually required to be compensated by the employer. (“Italy - Maternity and paternity leave allowance”, n.d.) Therefore, the full cost isn’t being placed on the employer or the government.

Despite the obvious benefits to working mothers, some limitations of this solution are that it will be much harder for small business owners to pay the rest of the wage and find a short-term replacement. Small businesses already are struggling, so having to pay supplementary costs and find new employees may be difficult. However, mothers working for small businesses earning low incomes are the ones that need PML the most, which is why a hybrid solution is more viable. Also, this solution may cause a short-term economic burden because the government will have to provide funding, but it will be beneficial in the long run. The government will have to make an investment to better our economy and society so that mothers get the time they deserve to recover and take care of their kids.

Moreover, we should emphasize the need to educate the public on their rights and opportunities to get paid leave. On top of the fact that paid leave is limited in the US, less than 2% of low-income mothers had accurate information about the paid leave policy in California. (EVIDENCE REVIEW Paid Family Leave, n.d.) As California is one of the few states that offer paid maternity leave at the moment, it is especially important that these women get the information they need to take advantage of this opportunity and have a better lifestyle for themselves and their kids.

These paid maternity leave policies have been proven to be successful around the world as well as in US states that have taken action. To ensure that more women enter and remain in the workforce, we must ensure that they are appropriately supported and protected. The US is struggling from poverty, especially in families with newborns, and paid maternity leave is the answer to help benefit our children, women, and economy.


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