How Much Paid Leave Is Enough?
Ask American mothers and fathers how much time they can take off work to care for and bond with a new infant, and the answers are all over the map
Lauren, who works for a big financial services firm, is on the 19th week of what will be six months of leave paid by her employer at 100 percent. When she returns to work, her husband will take three months off at 100 percent pay. Their baby will be eight months old by the time he starts child care. “We are fortunate,” she says.
Most other Americans aren’t. Chris, who works as a restaurant server, took eight weeks of unpaid leave, which—even with her husband working 70 hours a week—threw the family into financial chaos and her into postpartum depression. She would have loved more time to heal and for she and her husband to adapt to their new family life, but the financial stress was too much. “It takes the joy away a bit. Not that we don’t love our son, but we worry all the time for money,” she said. “Honestly? I feel robbed.”
And then there are the low-income women that Laura Brown, of First Shift Justice, tries to help—women who get fired just before they’d qualify for leave, or for whom any kind of leave of any length is a luxury. “They’re all in really bad situations,” she said. “But people just endure them.”
Just 14 percent of American workers are eligible for paid leaves, and high-wage workers like Lauren are three-and-a-half times more likely than lower-wage workers like Chris to get it. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that the median length of paid or unpaid time new mothers take leave to heal and care for infants is 11 weeks—the time when infants are about to being to recognize a caregiver’s voice, smell, and face, and five weeks before an infant can hold its head steady. For fathers, it’s one week.
But how much time is enough? The Family Medical Leave Act offers eligible employees—about 60 percent of the workforce—12 weeks of unpaid leave. The 35 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average 52 weeks of paid parental leave, ranging from zero in the United States to 166 weeks in Estonia. And amid growing public pressure, the Trump administration is proposing six weeks of paid parental leave.
To better understand how much time families need for caregiving in order to achieve the best outcomes, we scanned more than 100 studies, representing some of the best U.S. and international research, for a new Better Life Lab report examining how the length of paid family leave impacts four areas: infant and child health and wellbeing, maternal health and well-being, gender equality, and businesses and the economy. There is compelling scientific evidence that the optimal length of time to ensure the best infant and child health and well-being is one year of paid leave at adequate wage replacement, split between parents.
Studies have found paid family leave can contribute to fewer low-birth-weight and early-term babies (particularly for children of single and African American mothers), fewer infant deaths, fewer cases of child maltreatment, higher rates of breastfeeding, well-baby care, and immunizations, longer parental lifespan, improved mental health, and increased long-term achievement for children. Forty weeks is the optimal length of leave for reducing infant mortality. The U.S. has among the highest rates of infant death, maternal death and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome of any developed country.
The research shows that a minimum of six months of paid leave is ensures the best physical and mental health outcomes for mothers. Even at six months, many new mothers are experiencing at least one symptom of physical illness such as fatigue, pain, dizziness, or incontinence. Studies find that paid leaves of at least six months have significant, positive effects on maternal physical and mental health (even into old age), reductions in postpartum depression, an increase in breastfeeding, which has significant health benefits for mother and child, and a reduction in maternal stress and intimate partner violence. Leaves of fewer than 12 weeks have been associated with higher maternal depression and anxiety, reduced sensitivity to the infant and knowledge of infant development, negative impact on self-esteem, work stress, and overload, and marital dissatisfaction.
To best promote gender equality, the studies don’t point to any particular length of leave, but indicate that equal-bonding leave policies, which give men extra encouragement to actually use leave, lead to more equality for men and women at work and home. Giving men time to care is associated with reduced family stress, improved gender equality, and more involved parenting, which can lead to better social, emotional, cognitive and health outcomes for children, as well as healthier, more stable relationships with partners. One survey in Sweden found that men who were on parental leave for 30 to 60 days had a 25 percent reduced mortality risk compared to men who did not take leave.
And while some studies show paid family leaves have found neutral or positive impacts on business productivity, morale and employee retention, paid leaves that are either too short or too long tend to discourage women from returning to work. The research shows that leaves between nine months to one year are optimal for ensuring women’s return to productive work. Paid family leave has been found to help close the gender pay gap, reduce family reliance on public assistance, and boost women’s return to work. One study found that mothers who take paid leave are 93 percent more likely to be in the workforce 9 to 12 months after a child’s birth than women who take no leave.
Research has found that simply becoming a mother changes assumptions others have regarding her commitment and even competence. That could change, argues Taryn Morrissey, a public policy professor at American University and author of Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality, “if both mothers and fathers took paid leave and were viewed as being equally committed to family, and work.”
Morrissey takes this question of the adequate length of paid family leave personally. As a university professor, Morrisey and her husband were able to arrange shared paid leaves of five months for their daughter and seven months for their son. But Morrissey’s sister, Krystie Morrisey Niver, a dentist in Virginia Beach, had eight weeks of unpaid leave. When Niver was hospitalized with life-threatening preeclampsia and her daughter was born 15 weeks early by emergency C-section, she was faced with choosing to take leave either while her daughter was in the neo-natal intensive care unit or waiting until she came home months later.
Niver opted to save her leave for her daughter’s homecoming. So, one and a half weeks after her liver nearly ruptured and her kidneys nearly failed, she returned to work, still bleeding, sore from her incision and stitches, and on medication to control her dangerously high blood pressure. Niver’s employer counted the time she had been in the hospital against her eight-week leave. Niver visited the hospital every morning, pumped breast milk in the car as she drove to visit her baby on her lunch break, and spent evenings with her husband and fragile baby in the NICU. She didn’t have any other choice. “I just sucked it up and went to work,” she said. Niver has since changed jobs.
Jody Heymann, dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, is leading a study analyzing paid family leave systems around the world. “The good news is, countries have demonstrated you can be economically competitive and provide paid family leave,” she said. “It’s crucial that we do, too. We need to unite for the future of our children. It’s fundamental for the future of our country.”
Your Child Care Conundrum Is an Anti-Communist Plot
Before I became a parent, this country’s lack of affordable, government-supported child care was something I thought about sympathetically every once in a while, in between long yoga classes and leisurely novel-reading. I always diagnosed this hole in our social services as a feminist issue—there aren’t publicly funded day cares because conservatives don’t want women to work.
But a few weeks ago, as I negotiated a change in my baby daughter’s day care setup and inwardly raged against our country’s sorry support for child care, I suddenly remembered reading historian Nancy Cohen’s 2013 piece in The New Republic about the role of red-baiting in the failure to pass universal child care in the early 1970s. Do we really lack good, publicly funded preschools not only because some people think women should stay at home, but also because some people are afraid of Communism? Maybe! At the very least, the government-run day care services the Soviet Union provided have shadowed our efforts to get a version of the same in the United States.
The first Americans to think and talk about Soviet day care were leftist feminists in the 1920s, who praised it as an exciting innovation. “The Bolsheviks believed that capitalism had created a new contradiction, felt most painfully by women, between the demands of work and the needs of family,” historian Wendy Z. Goldman writes. “Capitalism would never be able to provide a systematic solution to the double burden women shouldered.” Services such as day care and communal kitchens and laundries were the Bolsheviks’ way of putting into practice Marx and Engels’ ideas about eliminating the oppressive structures of the bourgeois family. S. Ia. Vol’fson, a Soviet sociologist, wrote in 1929 that the traditional family “will be sent to a museum of antiquities so that it can rest next to the spinning wheel and the bronze axe, by the horsedrawn carriage, the steam engine, and the wired telephone.” Historian Julia Mickenberg writes in American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream that many American suffragists and “New Women” “were drawn to the Soviet Union because it embodied a promise of the good life and explicitly included women’s emancipation in that promise.” (Disclosure: Mickenberg was one of my dissertation advisors.)
When American feminists visited the new nation in the 1920s, they wrote about what they saw in glowing terms. The Soviets set up “day nurseries” at a time when Americans would have known them only as charities operated to house poor children while their mothers worked. In a 1928 book, American visitor Jessica Smith described the day nurseries in glowing terms: “Wide sunny rooms, rows of cribs with gay coverlets, play rooms with slides and chutes and steps to exercise tiny limbs, great colored blocks, pictures on the walls.” Mothers could drop by to nurse their infants, and “a sanitary kitchen with a trained dietician” made “the proper food for every age.”
This beautiful dream of quality universal day care—if it ever truly existed—went sour quickly. As Mickenberg writes, “material shortages and deep-seated sexism within Russian society limited women’s gains.” By the middle of the 1930s, Goldman argues, “the process of forced collectivization created fresh streams of homeless, starving children, and rapid industrialization subjected the family to new and terrible strains.” Trying to get things back on track, leaders began to encourage Soviet women to return to the home, and female workers lost much of the ground they had gained in entering male-dominated fields. Workplace discrimination continued despite government regulations, and cuts in funding for day care followed.
During the same time period in the U.S., the Depression and then World War II forced a reimagining of mothers’ role in the economy. As more middle-class moms went to work, the idea that day care was “a welfare service for desperately poor single mothers” began to transform, historian Elizabeth Rose writes. The understanding had been that day care was simply custodial: a way to keep poor kids from cutting themselves with knives or falling out of windows while their mothers toiled at factories. Now, however, people started to think of day care as potentially educational or enriching. In this social climate, the Works Progress Administration created 1500 preschools, mainly as an employment scheme for teachers. These schools served 50,000 children between 1933 and 1943. It was the first time the government put money into early childhood care, with hopes that the successful pilot would lead to more permanent and extensive services. “WPA nursery school leaders expected their program to lead to public preschools for all young children,” historian Molly Quest Arboleda writes. During World War II, the Lanham Act funded child care centers (including some of the former WPA schools) that served as many as 1.5 million kids.
In the immediate postwar period, many women wanted to see the Lanham Act centers stay open. One activist fighting to keep public centers open in Philadelphia at the end of the war wrote to the Children’s Bureau: “We’ve won the bloodiest war in history, now let’s win permanent Day Care for our children.”
It was not to be. Molly Quest Arboleda found that many women involved in the WPA nursery schools, either as teachers or supporters, faced accusations of Communist sympathies. Susan B. Anthony II (the more famous Susan’s grandniece) came under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee for her work with the Congress of American Women, which had named the conversion of wartime day care centers into permanent social fixtures as one of its three main goals. Governor Thomas Dewey of New York called protestors asking him to keep child care centers open “Communists.” Elizabeth Rose found that many of those who wrote in to a Philadelphia Bulletin forum on publicly funded child care used anti-Communist language. One wrote, “America is built on the bedrock of family ties and we refuse to imitate the Soviet Union, where 6,000,000 children are in such centers while the mothers are in forced labor camps.”
The Soviet Union’s child care system was indeed expanding and becoming more systematized. In 1956, wanting more women to enter the workforce, Nikita Khrushchev’s regime started an early childhood education program that became an extensive network of kindergartens and nurseries. These day cares did (as American critics charged) de-emphasize parental involvement in children’s education, instead leaning on the theories of psychologists and pedagogues who were considered more up-to-date than parents. Psychologist Alison Clarke-Stewart writes that children’s activities in Soviet day cares were “the most highly developed and uniform in the world,” and that “nothing was left to chance in the curriculum—everything was planned and specified, even the temperature.” Children were taught “industriousness, aesthetics, character…group awareness, problem solving, and creativity.” Soviet day cares put a strong emphasis on cooperation and sharing, and “as soon as they could talk, children were…given training in evaluating and criticizing each other’s behaviors from the point of view of the group.”
These readily available, sophisticated, but highly standardized day cares made an impression on Western visitors wary of Communist centralization and indoctrination. One such impression may have led to the downfall of a possible American equivalent to the Soviet day care system. The Comprehensive Child Development Act, which got through Congress in 1971 before being vetoed by Richard Nixon, would have created nationally funded child care centers providing early childhood services and after-school care, as well as nutrition, counseling, and even medical and dental care. The centers would charge parents on a sliding scale. But Pat Buchanan, as special assistant to the President, convinced Nixon to veto the plan.
Brigid Schulte interviewed Buchanan about this decision for her book Overwhelmed, and he told her he’d visited the Soviet Union when the CCDA was being debated: “We went to see the Young Pioneers, where these little kids four, five, and six years old were being instructed in Leninist doctrine, reciting it the way I used to recite Catechism when I was in the first grade,” he said. Either this experience truly, deeply affected Buchanan, or perhaps he wanted—as the bill’s sponsor Walter Mondale later wrote—“to use the issue to rally cultural conservatives” and “create a little maneuvering room to make the China trip.” (If Nixon threw conservatives a bone in the matter of day care, he could more easily sell them his plan to normalize relations with Communist China.)
Whatever his motivation, Buchanan successfully influenced Nixon to inject anti-communist language into his veto. “Our response” to the challenge of child care “must be a measured, evolutionary, painstakingly considered one, consciously designed to cement the family in its rightful position as the keystone of our civilization,” Nixon wrote. “For the Federal Government to plunge headlong financially into supporting child development would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.”
When Mondale and his co-sponsor, Representative John Brademas, tried again in 1975, grassroots fundamentalists torpedoed the revised legislation. As Nancy L. Cohen writes, “an anonymous flyer circulated widely in churches in the South and West,” claiming that the legislation would give children fantastical rights “to sue their parents and organize labor unions.” Sally Steenland, director of the faith and progressive policy initiative at the Center for American Progress, said of the conversation over day care at the time: “I remember seeing books with these really alarming pictures of state-funded nurseries in the Soviet Union…Swaddled infants tightly wrapped in rows of beds side by side, massive rows, and it was impersonal and supposed to be terrifying. And it was like: this is daycare.” According to Cohen, Buchanan’s redwashing of day care was “a political hijacking so fabulously successful it wiped away virtually any trace of its own handiwork.”
When my friends and I bemoan our own child care conundrums, anti-communism is not the first thing we blame. But on the right, writers and pundits still invoke it to condemn the very concept of government-funded day care. Michele Bachmann, speaking on the floor of Congress in 2009, characterized “President Obama’s vision for child rearing” as “send that little baby off to a government day care center from the day that baby is born.” A cheerily designed website called Daycares Don’t Care features a history of day care that sports a clip-art hammer and sickle. It quotes a woman “who spent most of her childhood in Communist Poland’s daycares”: “The assembly line time table, with everyone having to perform together on cue…The grubby, institutional food. The absence of real contact with adults, which meant that fights and squabbles were usually settled on the survival of the fittest principle.” In the Federalist, political scientist Paul Kengor explicates the Marxist idea of the abolition of the family, describing the Soviet push to put kids in day care and the Supreme Court’s support for same-sex marriage as equally radical measures. On the website of Concerned Women for America, a blog post asserts, “True feminist ideology is steeped in Marxist thought. The government must redistribute wealth, control businesses to make them hire us, and even take on the responsibility of raising our children via government daycare for us to be equal.”
Does it help to know that some of the mindset keeping us from having government-funded day care is anti-communism, in addition to simple anti-feminism? I’m not sure. But I’m still making phone calls to figure out how to cover my daughter’s care on Fridays! That part I'm sure about.
My Luckiest Career Break Was When My Husband Took the Lead at Home
In January, I got a lucky career break. It wasn’t a promotion or a job offer. My husband left his law firm job to start his own firm from home. I knew the change would be good for him, but I had no idea how good it would be for me.
I got my first clue when I came home from a typical race-against-time workday to find our children’s clothes washed and folded, stacked neatly into piles. The vision filled me with pure unadulterated joy. I felt ridiculously happy, giddy with relief.
Was I overreacting? My husband thought so. But I'd been washing that kid laundry for ten years, struggling every week to find time. He had even folded the underwear! Why my husband would take the extra second to do that senseless task was beyond me. For my part, since becoming a mom, I had operated under an every-second-counts paradigm. Often I’d run out of time to put the laundry away after washing it, groaning when dirty laundry inevitably joined it in the hamper and later conducting a smell test to distinguish the dirty from the clean.
I never pretended to be a domestic goddess. Growing up, I expected to achieve stratospheric career success and wealth using my intellectual firepower. Domestic chores were not part of the plan. My high school boyfriend even joked he’d be my stay-at-home husband.
Once I actually got married, my husband never shirked household responsibilities, but working long days and commuting constrained his ability to undertake kid logistics.
Now that he has more time and flexibility, doing the laundry is only the beginning of what he has taken on. Orthodontist appointment? He’ll handle it. One of the 32 scheduled days off school? He’ll cover it. The “Surprise! Your work day is cancelled” call from the school nurse? He'll deal with that, too.
Even with the incessant interruptions of parenthood and the seventeen different tracks running in my mind, I had been a model employee, operating efficiently out of sheer necessity. Nonetheless I had scaled back my career to accommodate motherhood in a way my husband had not. A lawyer myself, I had left law practice and sought out a more flexible job as a legal journalist. I realize the ability to choose a more flexible job is a privilege afforded mostly to white-collar workers who have a partner to provide support, and I was and am grateful for it. Yet as the partner with the more flexible job, and the ability to work from home, that choice also meant I bore the brunt of family demands.
Now that my husband has job flexibility, I have been ramping up my career in a way that had never been possible before. I am not sure how long it is going to last, or how it may change once his firm is up and running, so I am firing on all cylinders. In one elated moment, I asked my husband a question: Could he play the lead forever? With his continued support, I was confident I’d be able to really gun it and double my salary. Without a moment of hesitation, he answered: “No.”
I knew it was a long shot—he derives satisfaction from his career just as I do, and his greater share of the domestic load would be hard to maintain once he has built up his business. I didn’t expect him to give up his ambitions. But with the rare advantage of two flexible jobs and two willing partners, I’m optimistic that we’ll ultimately figure out how to play co-lead roles.
At least for now, I have been freed of childcare-induced hard stops to my workday. With a reduced mental load, I have reallocated the gained mental space to my goals. My persistent exhaustion and sense of overwhelm has begun to lift. I have begun speaking on panels instead of sitting in the audience watching mostly male speakers talk about topics I know as much or more about.
I’m getting a taste of an advantage so many working men enjoy throughout their careers. Even in two-parent families where both partners work, studies show that women in heterosexual partnerships disproportionately tackle the mountain of invisible parenting labor: arranging play dates, buying gifts, planning dinner, and so on. Although men are increasingly taking on lead parent roles, they remain the exception. Women more than men seek out flexible jobs, which incidentally tend to pay less per hour, something Harvard professor Claudia Golden sees as a major cause of the gender pay gap.
After only a couple of months of having a partner with a flexible job, who is not even a full-time caregiver, my career has gotten a noticeable boost. I have to wonder how many more women would hold leadership positions if the “second shift” were off their shoulders, if we were that much closer to the 50/50 split a lot of us expected but few of us attained.
The Catholic Church Is Starting to Come Around to the Idea of Paid Leave
In his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II wrote that “labor should be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their advancement by abandoning what is specific to them and at the expense of the family.” It’s fair to say that labor in the United States is not “structured in such a way,” which is the politely papal way of saying that this remains the only developed country in the world that does not require employers to offer even a single day of paid leave for new parents.
The importance of paid family leave has been gaining attention in American Catholic circles in recent years, and a Pew poll this spring showed more than 80 percent of Catholics favor paid maternity leave. To the extent that paid leave decreases the financial burden of parenthood, some advocates argue it could discourage abortion. And on a broader level, Catholic social teaching emphasizes that rights accrue to workers because of their essential dignity as human beings. “Workers are not simply instruments,” said Julie Rubio, a professor of Christian Ethics at St. Louis University. “They’re persons, who have to be treated as persons, with lives and responsibilities.”
Institutionally, however, American Catholic organizations have been slow to extend paid leave to their own employees. When the National Catholic Reporter surveyed 177 dioceses on parental leave policies in 2015, only 37 responded, and of those, only one offered a measly week of paid leave for all employees. A few others offered paid leave to only some employees, but 32 dioceses offered no paid leave at all, forcing parents to patch together unpaid time with vacation and sick time after a baby’s arrival. When Rubio researched leave policies at Catholic universities more than a decade ago, she found them lagging behind comparable public universities.
Employers always make justifications for not offering generous benefits packages, but Catholic institutions at least have some unique excuses. For one, many hospitals and schools historically relied on the free or low-paid labor of nuns, and have struggled financially with the shift to full-salaried lay staff. At one Catholic hospital in St. Louis, for example, almost every department was run by nuns in the 1960s, but by 2011 just 11 of 22,000 employees were nuns. (The number of nuns in the United States has dwindled to less than 56,000 from a peak of 180,000 in 1965, and the overwhelming majority of them are over 60.) The population of priests is aging quickly, too, which creates an additional financial stress on church coffers; Reuters estimated in 2015 that the American church’s pension budget shortfall was almost $2 billion. Huge payouts to sex-abuse victims and declining church attendance and Catholic school enrollment have added to the financial woes. Meanwhile, family benefits of all kinds have often been a blind spot in an institution historically led by childless men and women.
But some critics say Catholics ought to be leaders when it comes to leave, as a matter of institutional practice and policy pressure. Last year, the archdiocese of Chicago announced it would begin offering employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave, making the country’s third-largest archdiocese its most generous, too. The new policy, which went into effect last July, applies to about 170 Catholic schools, 340 parishes, and the diocese’s central office staff. Chris Connova, the director of personnel services at the archdiocese, said more than 100 people have taken advantage of it in this first year. “It’s a way for us to live out what we teach and preach,” he said. It’s also, he added, a way to for the archdiocese as an employer to make non-profit salary packages seem a bit more attractive to high-quality employees. Some smaller Catholic organizations, including the Washington-based Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, have made a similar shift in recent years.
The mainstream cultural and political conversation about family leave has long since moved beyond “maternity leave” to encompass men and times of family need other than childbirth. Pope Francis’s approach to family policy, meanwhile, remains traditionalist in spirit: a defense of leave as a particular necessity for women, because of one gender’s special responsibilities within the home and family. Pregnant women “must be protected and helped in this dual task: the right to work and the right to motherhood,” he told a group of Italian business executives in 2015. “The challenge is to protect their right to a job that is given full recognition, while at the same time safeguarding their vocation to motherhood and their presence in the family.” It’s not a perfectly contemporary argument for leave. But it’s better than nothing—and nothing is what too many American workers, even those employed by Catholic institutions, are stuck with for now.
Businesses of Any Size Can Accommodate Their Trans Employees. They Just Have to Try.
Despite recent progress in visibility and legal protections, many transgender Americans still experience discrimination around work, whether when applying for a job or as they’re trying to do one. Per the 2015 US Transgender Survey, published by the National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly one in five respondents reported their belief that they were fired, denied a promotion, or not hired for a job due to their gender identity or gender expression. Twenty-nine percent of respondents reported that they were living in poverty, and their unemployment rate was three times higher than the overall number.
NCTE executive director Mara Keisling says there are many factors that contribute to trans folks’ struggles in the workplace. “There are difficulties getting a job in the first place, from resumes that might have a gap in them” for the duration of medical transition, “to references who might know them by a different name, to headhunters who may feel it’s easier not to bring a trans candidate to a client because they don’t know how that client will react,” she says. “Trans people may not be hired, they may be fired, not promoted, or hidden from clients or not offered customer-facing jobs.”
As transgender people have become more visible in the culture, however, many companies in a variety of industries have added gender identity to their diversity statements. One of these is Werner Enterprises, a global transportation company based out of Omaha, Nebraska, which has included gender identity in its statement for the past five years. “We want everyone to feel welcome to come join us, and come work,” says Werner VP of human resources Stefanie Christiansen.
Amanda Eleanor Pitts is a trans woman who’s driven a Werner truck since December 2016. “It’s been a lot better than other jobs I’ve had,” Pitts says. “It doesn’t feel like they’re trying to tiptoe around something that could get them sued; it just feels like they’re nice to me and treat me like any other normal person.” Werner prides itself on employing a greater percentage of women drivers than any other competitor (10 percent, compared to fewer than 6 percent industrywide). It also offers a 24-hour safety hotline, which Pitts used when a truck driver from another company sexually exposed himself to her while she was trying to deliver a load
When Dana Pizzuti, a physician who works for a large pharmaceutical company, declared her intention to transition in 2015, she had already spent eight years on the job. “The company was supportive, but they’d never done it before,” she says. “There was no official LGBT employee association or any policies covering employee transition. It took some time, but together we put together a communications plan, I took some time off for facial feminization surgery, and came back as the new me.”
Pizzuti, who plans to write a book taking guiding transgender people through the transition process, consulted a lawyer before informing the company of her plans, and admits she sometimes felt some of her colleagues treated her differently after the change. But overall, she’s proud that the team of roughly 500 people she manages took the news professionally. “My industry is so conservative. It was always very nebulous, like something’s different about you, but then no one could give me an answer about what it was,” she says. But Pizzuti prefers to focus on the positive aspects of being an engine of progress in her own company and beyond. “Since I came forward [the company] has created a resource group for LGBT issues, and just this year they’re covering transgender care through their health insurance,” she says. “I’ve also been contacted by others in business to tell them my story and advise as they make decisions about their own policies.”
One resource for employers interested in improving their accommodation of trans employees is the Transgender Law Center’s model transgender employment policy. The sample guide covers ten core areas of the transgender experience at work. Some, like the use of gender concordant pronouns, anti-discrimination and harassment language, and the right for transgender people to use restrooms and changing rooms that accord with their gender identity, cover well-trodden ground in trans advocacy. Others may be less intuitive for those unfamiliar with trans people’s needs. For instance, the model policy enshrines a right for people to keep their trans status private, and to decide whether and to whom they wish to disclose. It also ensures the company’s health care plan includes transition-related medical needs, and it provides a sample plan modeling how to support an employee who is transitioning on the job.
Although detailed employment policies are tailored for the needs of large corporations with an extensive human resources infrastructure, having a workplace that accommodates the needs of transgender employees shouldn’t be a stretch for smaller businesses. “It comes down to the golden rule,” says Keisling of NCTE. “Treat other people as you’d like to be treated, treat your employees like they’re people, and treat everybody the same.” From trans truck drivers to top-level corporate managers, it turns out that respecting the rights of transgender workers isn’t much different from respecting anyone else.
Elder Care Is a Looming Crisis. Hawaii Is Facing It Head-On.
In Hawaii, senior citizens are kupuna. The Hawaiian word, used in roughly the same way as elder or grandparent, denotes reverence for experience and wisdom. Throughout history, Hawaiian culture has placed a high value on children and grandchildren caring for their kupuna, helping them age with dignity in their own homes and communities.
So when organizers from Caring Across Generations, a national caregiving advocacy group, began talking to Hawaii residents in 2015 about legislation that would guarantee universal long-term care for seniors, they were surprised to get pushback. “I thought, OK, this is going to have near universal support when you start to talk to people,” says Caring Across Generations’ political director, Kevin Simowitz. “And I was surprised at how often, early in the conversation, people would say some version of, ‘I don’t think this is somebody else’s responsibility. I think care is my responsibility. My parents are getting older—I should take care of them.’”
The bill sputtered out on the governor’s desk. But a new elder-care bill that recently passed both chambers of the Hawaii legislature looks poised to make it all the way into law. Advocates say the program it establishes will help people live up to the responsibility Hawaiians feel for their kupuna, rather than trying to replace the strong existing tradition of elder care.
If Gov. David Ige signs this legislation, people who work at least 30 hours a week outside the home and serve their kupuna as primary caregivers will be eligible for up to $70 a day in help from trained home aides. The Kupuna Caregiver Assistance Program would help a family caregiver continue to work outside the home, get some necessary breaks in caregiving work, and give her the money to pay a fair wage to the care workers she hires. It’s an important step toward meeting the needs of a fast-aging population and the family members who are expected—but too often financially unequipped—to shoulder the burden.
States around the country are preparing for a crisis in elder care as baby boomers age and develop debilitating age-related conditions. According to U.S. Census projections, by 2030, more than one-fifth of the U.S. population will be 65 years of age or older, up from 13 percent in 2010. But Hawaii is facing an even more urgent demographic shift. At 82, the Hawaii life expectancy is longer than any other state’s, and some analysts predict that 30 percent of the population could be 65 and over by 2030. The high cost of living on the islands exacerbates the financial strain of aging for seniors and those who care for them. According to AARP Hawaii, private nursing homes in the state charge almost 50 percent more than those in the continental U.S., and home health care costs thousands of dollars more than the U.S. average. Given those major potential costs, $70 a day for family caregivers is an efficient use of the state’s money.
The median hourly wage for trained health aides and care workers in Hawaii is between $10.61 and $12.72 an hour, depending on expertise, which is significantly less than what experts consider a living wage in Honolulu. Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, says many families that need home-care aides can’t afford to pay them a living wage. In some cases, they can barely make ends meet themselves. “In Hawaii, we’ve heard time and again that it’s not wealthy people that are hiring domestic workers—it’s people who need some support here and there,” she says. “It’s working families who are…working part-time or temporary [jobs], or they’re self-employed and they’re trying to piece together work.” Families in all income brackets across the country are hiring outside help or combining resources with other families so they can keep their jobs while meeting their responsibilities at home.
When Caring Across Generations polled Hawaiian adults between the ages of 45 and 70, one-third reported that they currently help care for an aging person in their home. Most of those unpaid caregivers, like the vast majority of family caregivers across the U.S., are women. Earlier this month, JAMA Neurology published an article on the gendered effects of a population aging into dementia and relying mostly on daughters and daughters-in-law for care. “The best long-term care insurance in our country is a conscientious daughter,” the authors wrote. “It remains to be seen whether men can be persuaded to assume an equal share of the burden of caregiving.” Female caregivers also shoulder a larger career and income toll from their family obligations. They’re more likely to leave the workforce entirely than male caregivers, and they’re nearly seven times more likely to downgrade from full-time to part-time work.
Janet Kim, Caring Across Generations’ communications director, says the gender justice implications of the kupuna care bill helped get legislators on board. The bill helps women stay in the workforce, advocates say, which will keep Hawaii’s economy strong and prevent a future elder-care crisis, because women who keep their jobs are safeguarding their own retirement plans.
That gives the legislation appeal to employers as well, as Clint Schroeder, president of a small Hawaii business, wrote in a March op-ed: “When a caregiver leaves the workforce early to take care of an aging loved one, we lose trained, skilled, seasoned workers.”
If Ige signs the legislation, Poo and other advocates around the country will be watching Hawaii and measuring the impact of a program that could be a model for elder-care programs in other states. Washington State is considering a bill that resembles previous versions of Hawaii’s, and similar conversations are taking place in the legislatures of Michigan, Minnesota, and Maine, whose population is the oldest in the nation.
With an encouraging example in Hawaii, Kim hopes, other legislatures will take notice of a coming hurdle that’s only getting higher. “People need to tackle this sooner than later,” she says, “before the whole nation gets into a crisis mode.”
K-12 Teachers Are Disproportionately White and Monolingual. Here’s One Way That Could Change.
Yazmin Gil moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 16. Three years later and barely out of high school, Gil was hired as a teacher’s assistant in a Washington state school district where instruction was split between English and Spanish. “I was the native [Spanish] speaker. The teacher was not a native speaker. I was doing the Spanish instruction two days and the next two days she would do the English instruction,” Gil says. Yet she was still earning the salary of a teacher’s aide, also known as a paraprofessional—about half of what certified teachers earn annually.
Gil is now a kindergarten teacher in a dual immersion program, but getting her certification took her eight years at three different schools. The district she worked in as a teacher’s assistant paid for her first semester of college; once that financial support was gone, Gil moved to community college. Later, to accommodate her work schedule, she took classes at night and on weekends. “It was a long journey,” she says.
Currently, many states and local school districts need to fill shortages of bilingual, dual immersion, and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers to meet the needs of their growing English learner student population. Paraprofessionals more closely match the racial and linguistic diversity of the U.S. student population, with about one-fifth of paraprofessionals speaking a non-English language at home and around 20 percent self-identifying as non-White. It is clear that paraprofessionals can help to diversify the mostly white, monolingual K-12 teacher workforce by filling teacher shortages. Yet they often face bureaucratic, linguistic, and financial barriers to entering the teaching profession.
In a recent report for New America, we examined these barriers from the perspective of 62 multilingual paraprofessionals in five different U.S. cities. Many reported that it was difficult to attend classes, pay for courses, and manage the complex teacher certification and licensure process while also supporting their families financially and otherwise. Some already had bachelor’s degrees in education from their home countries, but had difficulty getting their credentials translated and accepted for full certification.
The incentives for making the jump from paraprofessional to certified teacher are clear. While elementary teachers’ median salary is $53,760, paraprofessionals’ median pay is $24,900, which approaches the federal poverty line for a family of four—it barely covers the cost of food and housing, much less schooling. Now, some states and districts are addressing these barriers with specialized programs.
This year, Gil is a teacher mentor in her district’s two-year Bilingual Teacher Fellows Program, a partnership between Highline Public Schools and Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University that prepares paraprofessionals to earn their teacher certification. The 17 fellows will earn a bachelor’s degree and K-8 teaching credentials in a program structured to reduce financial, academic, and bureaucratic barriers to success. A mentor teacher gives them ongoing feedback on lesson plans and instruction. Each fellow has a WWU field mentor to help them with problem-solving, and WWU administrative staff are on hand to help fellows navigate the university admission process. And fellows receive $8,000 annual scholarships plus assistance applying for additional financial aid. Growing a pool of bilingual educators is essential to the district’s long-term goal: to have every student graduate bilingual and biliterate by 2026.
A handful of other states and districts have also developed “Grow Your Own” programs to help bring more paraprofessionals to the front of the classroom. South Dakota’s paraprofessional-to-teacher program helps build a pipeline of teachers on Native American reservations who are already invested and engrained in these communities. Many rural schools, often on reservations, face significant teacher shortages, so the state is investing in paraprofessionals to help close this gap. “Given the remote location of most of our tribal communities and most of our schools, it’s really hard to recruit and retain teachers from outside,” says Mato Standing High, director of Indian Education in South Dakota. “The idea is to capture those folks who are already working in the schools, who have good solid experience with the children, a good perspective on what the kids need and what the community and school need.”
Building those connections is also an essential component of Highline’s program. Gil has come full circle and now has the opportunity to coach Letys Ellefson, a WWU fellow on her road to becoming a certified teacher. “I wish I had something like this when I was working as a para,” Gil says, “and really had the support from the teachers I was working with...to [learn] all the little pieces to becoming a teacher.”
Grandpas Are the New Gender Equity Warriors
Among my friends in the U.S. and abroad, I’ve been noticing a new trend: When a new baby joins the family, grandpas are increasingly reporting to duty. They may not know how to sterilize bottles or work the straps on a carrier, but they’re making a deliberate decision to be more involved with their grandchildren. They’re paying attention to domestic details that moms and grandmas may not have known they could discern. “I haven’t seen this truck yet. Is it new?” “This is not a onesie I noticed before.” “Can he really not have solid foods yet?”
Without a doubt, norms around male involvement in caregiving are changing. But except for a small study here and there, much of the great new research on masculinity and fatherhood revolves around the role of dads, with grandads’ voices rarely popping up. To take a closer look at what grandfathers have been thinking about childcare, we talked to three from different parts of the world: a grandpa in the U.S., a saba in Israel, and a dědeček in the Czech Republic, all of whom made a conscious choice to be a big part of their grandchildren’s lives.
“Back in the day, it was just assumed that the mother would take on the majority of the parenting responsibilities,” says Michael Anthony, 68, a retired aerospace engineer in San Francisco. “I was at work all day, every day, and just didn’t think much about what I was missing and what my wife had to do. Looking back on it now and seeing more of how our grandchildren are taken care of, I realize I was really oblivious as a parent.” Now, he says he spends “many whole days” with his two small grandkids.
“I loved it when my kids were little, and I tried to do what I could,” says Jiří Dušek, 56, who lives in Prague and works as a head of the laser department at a Czech manufacturer. “But I think I owe my kids so much. To be honest, I don’t even remember if I was able to take any days off work when they were born.” Whatever time he wasn’t able to dedicate to his own children, he now tries to give to Hugo, his 7-year old grandson. “We’ve been taking ‘men-only’ trips since he was 2, and we spend several weeks on vacation together each year.” (Several weeks? Remember, this is Europe.) “We swim together, paint, he helps me fix things. Every Tuesday, my wife drops him off at my office and then we go to mountain biking practice. Then Hugo spends the night at our house, and I take him to school the next day.“
Zeev Cohen, 73, retired from Israeli public radio in Jerusalem. He took time off work when both of his two kids were born; he was in the delivery room with his wife, something that wasn’t the thing to do for his generation. Then he rushed home the same day to make all the arrangements, buying all the newborn clothes and fixing up the cot. He recalls feeding his kids when they were small. “Still, I wish I had had time to go with them to after-school activities, spend more time reading to them at home, or drawing with them. On a day-to-day basis, I probably missed things,” he says. He gets to catch up with his five grandkids: teaching them to draw, taking an active part in their soccer training, and joining one grandson for karate class.
All three agree that fathers becoming more involved in their kids’ lives hasn’t relieved as much pressure on their partners as one might hope. “For mothers, things are harder as they are having to multi-task, their careers have become more demanding, and they have to be superwomen,” Cohen says. “There are no fewer pressures of motherhood,” Anthony says, “even with fathers helping out more these days.”
Dušek points out that fathers tend to work much longer hours than those in his generation did. He says that he’s become more understanding toward colleagues who are parents—he doesn’t mind when they leave early to take their kids to swim practice. Parents make sure to catch up on this time and stay later on other days, he says.
All three also agree that young parents need greater government support and corporate flexibility. “The Israeli working world is not family-friendly enough,” Cohen says. “Dads should have a longer parental leave”—the Knesset approved a mere five-day paternity leave policy just last year—“and [employers should] shorten the working hours at least one or two days a week.”
To effect change, these grandpas might see results with a little peer pressure. Today’s granddads have a lot of concentrated power: In the U.S., for example, 63 percent of senators are over 60 years of age, and it can be safely presumed that many of the world’s gray-haired parliamentarians already have grandchildren. Sixty percent of American grandparents still have a part- or a full-time job. Over the past decade, the number of CEOs ages 65 to 69 nearly doubled among Fortune 500 companies, and those over 70 also increased. (Needless to add, over 95 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are men.)
“The U.S. is way behind the curve when it comes to parental leave,” Anthony says. But if men of every generation continue to argue for their parental rights, in a few decades, teaching your grandkids to draw and noticing every new truck among the toys might not feel so bittersweet.
Running a Pre-K Program Is Hard. So Why Do Some States Require Almost No Qualifications?
Every weekday morning, Leilani Au, a child care center director in Honolulu, wakes up early to figure out staff schedules for the day. With 18 teachers and more than 25 teachers’ aides, scheduling changes are inevitable. Once that’s under control, she says, “I spend the beginning part of my day connecting with staff and checking email. I try to visit the classrooms and have brief conversations with the children and teachers, and then I greet as many parents and children when they arrive as I can.”
About 130 children between the ages of 2 and 5 attend Au’s childcare center and its two satellite locations. Au works with the center’s education coordinator to direct the curriculum, assessments, and staff professional development. She reports on enrollment, budgets, and personnel issues to the University of Hawaii, with which the center is associated. She also spends time ensuring the center keeps its National Association for the Education of Young Children accreditation—the industry gold standard. In many respects, her role and responsibilities are similar to those of an elementary school principal.
Au has a master’s degree in education and many years of experience in the classroom; this is the third child care center she’s directed. But as a study we recently conducted revealed, the educational and experience requirements for people directing early child care vary wildly by state—and many lack Au’s qualifications. Notably, while nearly every state requires elementary school principals to have a master’s degree and pays them a salary to match, 41 states allow center directors to have less than an associate’s degree—and their low salaries often reflect it.
That matters, because about 60 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds spend the day in a pre-K classroom, whether it’s publicly funded pre-K at an elementary school, Head Start, or a private or nonprofit center. And after teachers, research on elementary and high school education has shown, school leaders are the greatest factor within a school that affects student achievement. “Program leadership is the combination of administrative, pedagogical, and leadership essentials,” says Teri Talan, director of policy initiatives at the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership and a former child care center director. “In small programs, chances are the center director wears all hats.”
The new report by New America’s Early & Elementary Education Policy program, “A Tale of Two Pre-K Leaders: How State Policies for Center Directors and Principals Leading Pre-K Programs Differ, and Why They Shouldn’t,” compares expectations for principals and center directors in all 50 states and D.C. The stark differences in state policies that we found particularly affect disadvantaged children, whose families can’t afford to be as selective about where they send their young kids. In the report, we made a series of recommendations to improve the preparation, development, and working conditions of child care directors and in the process to improve children’s experience as well.
Why Pretending You Don’t See Race or Gender Is an Obstacle to Equality
When Christy Johnson was pregnant and working as a vice president at a tech company, a manager made some sexist comments to her. When she confronted him, he hid behind what he thought was a bullet-proof shield: As the father of two daughters, he didn’t even see gender, he said. He was “gender blind.” “I felt dismissed,” Johnson told me.
That manager was far from alone. In Johnson’s present role as the CEO and founder of the strategy consulting firm Artemis Connection, she often hears company leaders say “they're gender blind or race blind because of an experience they may have had growing up in a diverse community—or having a strong mom,” Johnson said.
Even as more Americans have become aware of once-wonky concepts like unconscious bias, blindness to race and gender has remained an aspirational idea for many. The majority of white Americans think that the U.S. is a colorblind society; 70 percent of millennials in a 2014 MTV survey claimed that they don’t see racial minority groups differently than white people. Last year, Ivanka Trump, trying to cast her father in a more favorable light, insisted that he was “color-blind” and “gender-neutral.”
These ideas rest on certain assumptions: that it’s possible not to see difference at all, and that recognizing or calling out diversity is what introduces stereotyping and prejudice. But a mounting accumulation of research has shown something very different: These claims can themselves act as blinders. In some cases, Johnson says, leaders are so insistent on blindness that they’re unwilling to hear about the systematic bias and discrimination that does exist.