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Commentary: It's time to make parental leave a priority for everyone

Being a parent is a joyful and challenging experience. Being a parent in America is more challenging than it ought to be. And it's past time both major political parties did something about it – by guaranteeing paid family leave for everyone.

A few days back from my own maternity leave – the third time around for our family – I am as conscious of my privilege in this area as I have ever been. As I return to my other day job of political strategist, and I'm looking hard at policy areas I would advise my own candidates to champion, it's parental leave that's at the top of the list.

For a nation that has long extolled "family values," the United States has fallen far behind other countries in ensuring parents are able to focus on their children during those precious early weeks and months. In fact, the U.S. remains the sole industrialized nation without a paid family leave law on the books. The Family and Medical Leave Act merely guarantees those who work for a company with 50+ employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off – a luxury the vast majority of Americans would be hard-pressed to afford. A paltry 14 percent of American workers are offered paid family leave – and far fewer companies allow fathers time off to care for their newborn children than mothers.

While there are some companies that offer generous parental leave packages to their employees – and tout them in their press releases – it's an expensive perk for higher-paying jobs. Such benefit packages are key to recruiting and retaining the best talent in the market for high-skill positions. 

Leaving it to the market to dictate who gets the more generous parental leave only widens the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged. Studies show the benefits for baby when one or both parents are able to be at home for extended periods of time are wide-ranging and have impacts lasting well into adulthood. On the flip side, being deprived of this kind of care may also have lifelong impact. It's one reason why President Obama made six weeks of paid family leave mandatory for federal workers and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, has introduced a bill calling for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave every year for five years running.

It shouldn't have to be this way -- and it's not in many other countries with market economies. Around the world, other nations have made maternity leave a priority: Canada, Japan, and the majority of European nations offer mothers paid leave of a year or more and ensure some benefits for fathers, too. In Australia and the United Kingdom, parents are entitled to a combination of paid and unpaid leave for one year. There's no reason the U.S. can't do the same.

The goal should be paid family leave – but maternity leave would be a start. Several recent studies indicate more women are the primary breadwinners in their households than ever before. According to the Center for American Progress, 42 percent of women were the primary or sole breadwinner in 2015, with the distinction even more pronounced among African American and Latina women. Paid maternity leave would go a long way toward ensuring these women have the financial security to meet the needs of their families and can continue to contribute to the U.S. economy over the long term.

During the 2016 presidential election cycle, candidates from both sides of the aisle called for paid family leave of some form – and the budget unveiled by the Trump Administration earlier this year proposed 6 weeks of paid parental leave through programs to be developed by the states. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have put forward legislation to ensure varying degrees of paid leave. Americans overwhelmingly support the idea of paid family and medical leave, even if they remain split on the precise policies. If we can agree all on the principle of paid family leave, surely we can figure out how to fund it.

Or, we can continue to throw around "family values" until the term loses all actual meaning.

  • Lynda Tran

    CBSN contributor Lynda Tran is a founding partner of progressive grassroots strategy firm 270 Strategies