At the behest of his daughter Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump has promised a paid national maternity leave program that provides six weeks of paid leave to all new mothers.
The proposal is currently estimated to cost $300 billion, and Trump transition officials told CNN they planned to pay for it by pushing through a series of broader tax reforms.
But a new study from Ohio State University indicates that national paid family leave might not actually lead to more women taking time off work after childbirth.
That’s because even as paid leave has become more available in the past 20 years, the total number of women taking maternity leave has scarcely increased.
In 1994, 278,000 women took maternity leave (both paid and unpaid), and as of 2015, only 300,000 women reported taking it.
Jay Zagorsky, the author of the study, says this is concerning because the number of women taking maternity leave really should have grown more.
In the past 20 years, four states passed paid family leave laws and just this past December, Washington, DC, joined their ranks, passing one of the most generous paid family leave laws in the nation. Not to mention there has been a frenzy of Silicon Valley companies racing to one-up each other with generous leave packages.
"What was surprising to me is the number of women getting any kind of maternity leave [both paid and unpaid] has flatlined," said Zagorsky.
But the number of men taking family leave has more than tripled
What has changed much more dramatically in the past 20 years is the number of men taking time off from work following childbirth.
The number of employed fathers who take paternity leave has more than tripled, from 6,000 fathers in 1994 to 22,000 fathers in 2015.
The number of both men and women who took leave and actually got paid for it has also trended upward in the past two decades, but the percentage of men taking paid family leave is growing at a faster rate — almost double the rate for women.
As you can see in the chart below, a larger percentage of men take paid family leave than women.
In 2015, more than 70 percent of men who took family leave were paid compared with less than half of women — 47.5 percent. Zagorsky was surprised that the number of women receiving paid leave was growing so slowly.
"If right now only half of all women are being paid, and if that number is only increasing a quarter of a percentage point each year, that means the number will go up 1 percentage point every four years," said Zagorsky. So in other words, "it will take 200 years for paid maternity benefits for all employed women."
Zagorsky said he couldn’t tell me why a higher percentage of men received paid family leave than women. But if he were to speculate, he’d connect it to more companies offering generous maternity and paternity leave policies.
"I’m fairly old — I’m 55. I’ve had my kids, and when I was in my 20s and 30s, I didn’t know of any companies offering paternity leave," he said. "But when I look across the US labor market now, I see an increase in gender-neutral [leave] policies."
Heidi Hartmann, the president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), agreed that the data squared with trends she’s observed.
"When you look at the data on who has paid leave and who doesn’t, it’s the highest-income workers who get the most benefits," she said. "And as we all know, men make more than women, and they are also often in higher-level positions. So I’m really not surprised."
Paid family leave benefits high-income white workers most
One reason why Zagorsky thinks we haven’t seen more women eligible for maternity leave use it in the past 20 years is because it’s often associated with a cut in pay. Most state-run family leave programs fall under the umbrella of a disability program, which he says is a problem.
"Disability systems are designed so when people get hurt they don’t get a full replacement salary," he said. "And when a new baby is born, that’s when your expenses go up dramatically, so to be offered, at that point, disability and only collect half pay can be very financially dramatic for a family."
What’s more, if a woman goes on maternity leave, she isn’t, in many cases, guaranteed to have the same job when she’s ready to go back to work.
Between the cut in pay and lack of job security, this is why women most likely to benefit from paid maternity leave are overwhelmingly white, married, and highly educated. Zagorsky found that of the women who took maternity leave, more than 70 percent attended college, though only 50 percent of all mothers who gave birth in the US attended college.
This is why Zagorsky doesn’t think Trump’s paid maternal leave policy would result in a massive uptick of women taking paid maternity leave.
"If Trump came through and offered paid maternity leave and it was like the California [family leave] system, so [a person receives] roughly half of their salary, I would expect the number of women on maternity leave to increase," said Zagorsky. "But I don’t think we would get 100 percent of all women selecting to go on maternity leave."
In fact, there’s good reason to believe a paid national family leave policy (assuming it paid workers only a percentage of their salary and imposed an income cap) would only result in a modest uptick of workers taking leave.
A Department of Labor and IWPR research brief found that if a national family leave plan was implemented, the number of workers opting to take paid family and medical leave would only increase by 6 to 11 percent annually, depending on the model implemented.
Hartmann said the brief didn’t project a larger percentage of workers taking paid family and medical leave because workers are more likely to store up paid leave instead of taking it. But she maintains that a federally mandated program remains the best way to ensure paid leave for low-income women and women working in businesses that cannot afford to provide paid leave on their own.
"When you have a baby, you can’t work," she said. "But a certain number of women are going back to work in just two weeks no matter what, but it’s very unhealthy for the mother and the baby."
A national maternity leave policy could help improve maternal and infant mortality in the US
In other countries, maternal death rates have fallen sharply since 1990, but in the US, the opposite is happening. The rate of women dying in childbirth is going up.
Hartmann says paid family leave is a possible solution to maternal and infant deaths in the US.
"The lack of institutional support for a new mother and her infant right after birth is shocking," she said. "We are just not providing that paid time off for mothers that could help them and their baby."
The list of health benefits linked to maternity leave is long. And since 1952, the United Nations has called for at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave for all employed women. Studies have also shown that family leave after childbirth can improve the mental health and physical well-being of new mothers in addition to longer-term career gains, as they are more likely to return to the workforce. What’s more, it’s not just mothers who benefit from maternity leave; it’s also been linked to improved early childhood outcomes.
But implementing a national paid family leave program that provides workers with a living wage so they feel comfortable taking more time off won’t be easy. After the election, Trump’s campaign team told the Washington Post that the average weekly payout with Trump’s policy would be roughly $300. This is significantly lower than many of the state-run plans already in place and what’s more, passing what in essence is a large-scale government safety net is going to be hard in a Republican-controlled Congress already bent on dismantling existing social safety nets like the Affordable Care Act.