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Maternity & Family Benefits

Understanding the history behind maternity leave policy in the U.S. is key to transforming it

May 31, 2019

This year at SXSW, we hosted a panel “Moms are working, why aren’t maternity policies?” The panel discussed current maternity leave and maternity policies in the United States, as well as postpartum care, diving into what exactly is -- and isn’t -- working for women, and how companies, insurers, Congress, local legislators (and you!) can help change policies for the better.

Haley Swenson, from the New America Foundation, has been studying why women leave the workforce, even when they don’t want to, and the policies that contribute to this attrition. Understanding the history and current policies is key to understanding how we can improve them to work for more parents.

At SXSW, Haley dove into her research, and spoke about why it’s actually not so surprising that women choose to leave their job after having a baby:

“Only 14 percent of workers in the U.S. have access to paid leave. More stunningly, about a quarter of women go back to work within two weeks of giving birth -- which is bad for their health, as well as their mental health and their baby’s and family’s health. ‘Why is the U.S. so far behind on this issue?’ is a question that I get asked a lot in this line of work. The U.S. is the only developed country certainly of its level of wealth that guarantees zero paid weeks of maternity leave to mothers. We do have a policy called the Family Medical Leave Act, which was passed in 1993, and it gives some workers access to unpaid leave. But if any of you have actually taken time away, you know it's barely a policy that helps if taking it means you don't get your income. Having to choose between leave to take care of yourself and a family member competing with the need to actually bring it in on income and pay your bills is a serious problem.”

But why is the U.S. so far behind other countries in terms of maternity leave policies? Haley explained:

“From my research, it seems to be a bit of a historical accident. Most of the strongest countries on this issue adopted their initial policies right after World War II. The U.S. was in a very different position than most of those countries were at this time, however. Other countries were really concerned about getting their economies going after they'd been really broken down by the war. Getting women into the workforce was a chief goal for their economies so paid maternity leave made good sense. It was a way to retain women in the workforce.

The U.S. on the other hand, when you look at Congressional Testimony, wanted the opposite, which is to get women who were in the workforce during World War II to go back into their homes to leave space for men. And that has carried over for a really long time. The other issue is a kind of misnomer about what it is we mean by parental leave - by paid leave - at all. There's a sense when you talk about this in the U.S. - especially you talk with business owners and employers - that they see this as basically just a federal policy that would require businesses to pay for something they don't feel like they can afford. And actually, the way that most countries have had a really successful policy is not through employer mandates, which is how the US manages a lot of these policies, but through efficient social insurance programs, which are not unlike Social Security where you and your employer pay really small amounts in on a month-by-month basis. Then when you need it, it's there for you just like any other kind of insurance policy.

Haley also spoke hopefully about the future of maternity policies in the U.S.:

“A lot of states in the U.S. are now working to adopt similar insurance models. We are seeing important movement at the state and city level, which is actually helping to move some of these things along. In addition, in the absence of any real robust federal policy, some great employers are actually engineering really fantastic generous policies which aren't available to most workers yet but they do give you some sign that most people in this country think we need something better and are trying to figure out how to do it.”


Though understanding the history behind our country’s leave policies is important, there isn’t one solution that will allow us to create better maternity policies that support new parents the way they need to — and deserve to — be supported. The issue spans federal and state policies, the current structure and policies of workplaces large and small, and the way the medical and obstetrics world is set up to care for postpartum women.

In the coming weeks, we'll be diving into how specifically the workforce can better support women, how technology can be leveraged to provide transformative support, and how postpartum care needs to evolve as well.  We’ll also be highlighting the thoughtful questions that were asked by the audience at SXSW. Our goal is to open up a conversation between all of us -- through continued discussions and advocacy, we will be able to transform the way women and families are supported on their parenthood journeys — both at home and at work.


Up next…


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Download Ovia’s apps for fertility, pregnancy, and parenting here!

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