The U.S. remains the only advanced economy without federal paid leave, despite overwhelming support for this benefit.
Employers are free to provide this benefit at their own expense. But only 1 in 4 U.S. workers, including federal employees, can take paid time off to care for a newborn or a newly adopted or fostered child. That’s problematic for many reasons, including the abundant evidence that paid leave boosts healthy childhood development and economic security.
President Joe Biden has sought to expand access to paid family leave, initially through his Build Back Better package, which is now on hold. He reasserted his calls to do so in his March 2022 State of the Union address.
Based on our extensive research regarding the connections between social policies and the happiness of families, we’re certain that expanding access to paid leave to more employees would make them happier.
Children and unhappy parents
In recent years, a growing number of studies have indicated that parents, particularly in the United States, are generally less happy than their childless peers, especially when their children are little.
Parents also experience more depression, loneliness and stress.
Some scholars argue that a lack of government support for raising kids is causing this “happiness gap.”
Only 6.3% of 3-year-olds and just over 33% of 4-year-olds nationwide are enrolled in a state-funded preschool program, although free early childhood education is becoming more common. Likewise, just nine states and the District of Columbia now provide paid family leave for new parents.
In other words, most U.S. families are still being left behind. And without universal free pre-K or paid family leave, many parents are largely on their own in terms of finding and paying for private child care for young children.
Paid family leave of at least a month can help parents to develop more fulfilling family relationships. For example, it can allow parents to spend more time reading and singing to their child, which benefits cognitive development.
The effects of paid leave on the relationship between parents depends on who is taking the leave. If only mothers take family leave, then gender inequality in housework increases. But when fathers take paid leave, couples share their housework responsibilities and child care more equally.
This is because when both parents take a leave after the arrival of a new child, they are more likely to establish household routines that result in an equal sharing of household tasks. One study found that when fathers were encouraged to take a parental leave, their participation in household tasks increased by 250%.
When parents are free to take more time off work to care for their infants and newly adopted children with fewer financial costs and little fear of job loss – and especially when dads are encouraged to take time off – both children and their parents are happier.
Through our research spanning 27 countries, we’ve found that parents in wealthy countries with weak safety nets – such as the U.S. – tend to be less happy than their counterparts in countries like Denmark where the government provides everyone with more support.
This is one reason Finland, Norway and other nations with strong welfare states consistently rank at the top of the World Happiness Report, an annual assessment based on Gallup World Poll data.
The U.S. ranks lower than would be predicted in that report given its economic standing, while the opposite is true in the case of Denmark, Canada, New Zealand and other welfare states.
We’ve also found that when governments step up their spending on social programs and adjust tax burdens to make the rich shoulder more of the costs of running the government, economic inequality declines. At the same time, the happiness levels of low-income and high-income people become more similar.
Higher social spending especially increases the happiness of women with small children and people who are cohabiting but unmarried. Other international research shows greater economic and mental health benefits of paid leave for low-income families.
Recent research by other scholars who study countries that have invested heavily in social welfare policies like paid family leave further supports our findings.
Respondents in the world’s most generous welfare states were more satisfied with their work, health and family life than people in places with weaker safety nets.
As one notable example, a recent study that one of us co-authored showed that the Japanese government’s investments in generous paid leave for families with small children, access to child care, child allowances and free health insurance for children, as well as increased benefits for older adults, were associated with modest gains in overall happiness.
These policies made significant differences for women with small children and older people, who became happier between 1990 and 2010.
Losing benefits can decrease happiness
In addition, there is evidence of what can happen when government benefits that meet many people’s needs are taken away. In the former German Democratic Republic, satisfaction generally rose between 1990, just before its transition to a free-market economy from a communist state, and 2004 in terms of the freedom to buy goods and services.
On the other hand, that same study found that satisfaction in the place that also used to be called East Germany plummeted concerning health, work and child care. People had been guaranteed access to health care and child care, as well as job security, under communist rule – but all of that changed when that system collapsed.
Federal paid leave gives families a chance to find their footing after the arrival of a new child, without having to quit their job or take unpaid time off. It should come as no surprise that such a safety net would make families not only economically more secure, but happier too.
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