Having and raising children is one of the largest causes of the gender pay gap in the USA. This is by no means a new problem, but the past three decades have substantially increased the issue. Looking at this time period, the academic journal, Michigan Journal of Public Affairs, found that, while wages for the lower and middle class stagnated, childcare costs have increased by 70 percent, social expectations of mothers to be primary caregivers cost the U.S. $57 billion each year, and that creating a solution could expand the economy by $1.6 trillion. So what is this solution? As usual, it’s what every industrial nation except for the U.S. already has: free childcare and a drastic expansion of parental leave.
This has been known for decades and is already well-researched. In a thorough resource sheet from the National Partnership for Women & Families, academics have already shown that women’s access to paid leave increases chances of better wages by more than 50 percent, would allow five million women to return to the workforce, and would prevent American families from losing over $22 billion a year due to lost wages. In addition, the NPWF reports that equalizing parental leave has a direct impact on equalizing parental responsibilities; fathers who take more than two weeks off allow women to go back to work and get themselves more involved with childcare, compared to those who didn’t. And free childcare? Mothers who couldn’t find an adequate provider were significantly less likely to have a job, and those who had accessible care were more likely to go on to find higher paying jobs, get promoted, or, for stay-at-home-moms, find a new job.
So, this is clearly critical from a monetary standpoint, but these universal programs also have robust social benefits as well. In arguably the strongest universal program in the world, Finland gives seven months of paid leave to each parent, and that leave cannot be transferred to one person. This, in a sense, forces new parents to use their individual time and share responsibility. As expected, Finnish dads are some of the most involved in the world, while other European countries with paid leave make it transferable. This leads to fathers still transferring most of their leave to mothers, which only serves to exacerbate inequality in parental care and responsibilities, as well as in gender pay gaps. While serving as a partial equalizer for income, paid childcare and strong parental leave laws, when done right, also serves as an indirect regulator and equalizer for the responsibilities parents hold, alleviating the burden women face.
This really does need to be done right, though. As I said, some European models still have significant flaws and loopholes that only improve the pay gap by a small amount. Finland is, for all intents and purposes, the prime example of a best case scenario. While doing in-depth research and writing her book, The Nordic Theory of Everything, on economic inequality in the U.S., author and journalist Anu Partanen uses Finland’s universal childcare and leave programs as the main tenets of introducing economic justice in the U.S., and cites policies like these as some of the biggest reasons for equality in Finland and in the rest of Scandinavia. These programs also have to be universal. Issues regarding childcare disproportionately affect families of color and those with lower incomes. There can be no strings attached to any of these programs. Suspicion and restrictions around social programs are rooted in racist history, and any successful program needs to include everyone in this country.
In a nation where federal laws only require a small amount of unpaid leave to certain workers, this would obviously be a massive overhaul. But we have nothing to lose. The U.S. is rated worse in child wellbeing than almost every other first world nation, and already suffers from some of the worst inequality in the west. This program has already been proven to work in every developed country; there is literally no reason it wouldn’t work here. While it absolutely wouldn’t eliminate the gender pay gap, it would decrease it by more than any other piece of legislation out there, and that’s not even accounting for changes in parental roles. This is a rare case of an option that is just upside, no down, and not considering it one of the most urgent things to implement is an opinion that has no basis in reality.
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