The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. ranks last in every measure when it comes to family policy, in 10 charts

Pew Research Center and OECD

President Obama declared in his State of the Union speech earlier this year that it was time to “do away” with U.S. family policies — such that exists — “that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode.” In an address on Saturday, he said that updating “outdated workplace policies” to fit the families and workplaces of the 21st century is the main goal of the White House Summit on Working Families.

“Family leave. Child care. Flexibility. These aren’t frills – they’re basic needs,” Obama said. “They shouldn’t be bonuses – they should be the bottom line.”

So let’s see how the United States stacks up against the rest of the world when it comes to policies that support not the “Mad Men”-era traditional breadwinner-homemaker families, but the modern reality that the majority of children in the United States and in most of the rest of the world live in families headed by a single working parent, or by two working parents.


Obama said in his radio address: “Many jobs don’t offer adequate leave to care for a new baby or an ailing parent, so workers can’t afford to be there when their family needs them the most. That’s wrong. And it puts us way behind the times. Only three countries in the world report that they don’t offer paid maternity leave. Three. And the United States is one of them. It’s time to change that. A few states have acted on their own to give workers paid family leave, but this should be available to everyone, because all Americans should be able to afford to care for a family member in need.”

Some countries in Europe have offered paid maternity leave for decades. And when it turned out that long maternity leaves and no paternity leaves only reinforced the traditional notion that women are and should be the primary caregivers and men the breadwinners, and either kept women out of the workforce — with employers reluctant to hire them — or kept them underemployed because of their heavy caregiving responsibilities, many countries introduced the “father” quota to encourage more fathers to take parental leave and share caregiving from the start. Most paid leaves are paid through pooled contributions in social insurance, and only in rare cases by the employer or employee only.

The United States has one family-friendly policy: the Family Medical Leave Act. It took about a decade to pass and, after a long fight, offers only unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks a year to care for yourself, a child or a family member. It is restricted to workers in companies with more than 50 employees, who work full-time and have been with the firm for more than one year, and thus doesn’t cover 40 percent of the U.S. workforce. However, it was crafted with the European experience in mind, and is gender-neutral — offering men and women equal opportunity to take unpaid leave.

Still, the United States is one of only three countries to offer no paid maternity leave, according to a new report by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization, “Maternity and Paternity at Work,” along with Oman and Papua New Guinea. Some U.S. companies have chosen to provide paid leave to their employees. One study of about 1,000 firms found that they offered 58 percent of women some paid maternity leave, typically partially replacing their salaries and paid through a temporary disability insurance fund. The study found companies offered 14 percent of men paid paternity leave.

U.S. fathers fare no better on paid leave, comparatively speaking, according to the same ILO report:


Obama said on Saturday: “Most working families I know can’t afford thousands a year for child care, but often that’s what it costs. That leaves parents scrambling just to make sure their kids are safe while they’re at work – forget about giving them the high-quality early childhood education that helps kids succeed in life.”

Congress passed a universal child-care bill in the early 1970s with bipartisan support that would have offered universal high-quality, affordable, accessible child care. Despite early support from officials in his administration, President Richard M. Nixon vetoed the bill after conservatives, worried that it might undermine traditional breadwinner-homemaker family structures, threatened to run a challenger against him in the Republican primary. The veto, coming at the height of the Cold War, raised the specter of the Soviet Union, arguing the child-care bill would have committed “the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.” Other than child-care subsidies for the very poor, the issue has never come up again.

Today, child care for the roughly 11 million American children younger than 5 who need it is expensive, the quality runs from excellent to mediocre to dangerous, research shows, and state standards are all over the map. There are no national health and safety standards. Now, child care and education are second only to mortgage or rent in the family budget, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And in 31 states and the District of Columbia, the annual cost of infant care in a center is higher than a year’s tuition and fees at a four-year public college, reports Child Care Aware of America in its most recent report.

That’s not the case in many other advanced economies, where the governments, unions or employers may share the cost of child care with parents.


Obama said: “Then there’s the issue of flexibility — the ability to take a few hours off for a parent-teacher conference or to work from home when your kid is sick. Most workers want it, but not enough of them have it. What’s more, it not only makes workers happier – studies show that flexibility can make workers more productive and reduce worker turnover and absenteeism. That’s good for business.

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. 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.”

In the early 20th century, the United States, spurred by none other than Henry Ford, was the world leader in creating humane policies that enabled people to do good work, provide for their families with decent wages and have time to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Ford, for instance, cut work hours in his auto plants from the industry standard of 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week to eight hours a day, five days a week. As reports began to spread of his increasing profits and happier, more productive workers, with more free time and more cash in their pockets, the world soon followed suit.

It may come as a surprise, but the Fair Labor Standards Act that ushered in that change in 1938 is still the law of the land. Unlike other countries that mandate shorter work hours by law, like the European Work Time Directive, which limits the workweek to 48 hours including overtime, the FLSA protects only hourly workers from overtime work by mandating that employers pay time and a half for any work over 40 hours a week. Salaried workers have no such protection under the law. The United States, unlike other countries, also has no national vacation policy and no mandate that workers have rest, leaving those provisions, as with other workplace and benefit policies, to individual employers’ discretion.

In 2010, Obama held another White House forum on workplace flexibility, saying it wasn’t just a “women’s issue. It’s an issue that affects the well-being of our families and the success of our businesses.” The Families and Work Institute’s 2014 National Study of Employers found that the share of workers telecommuting, and those who have more control over the start and end of their workdays, has risen since 2008. But the percentage of workers who are allowed to job-share, take sabbaticals or work only part of the year is down, as is the share of those allowed flexibility to handle caregiving responsibilities, from 64 percent to 52 percent.

Some U.S. surveys have found that many managers don’t know how to manage a flexible workforce.

In other countries, flexible work is on the rise.