What Was Missing From The Democrats’ Debate On Paid Family Leave

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the first Democratic debate CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN LOCHER
Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the first Democratic debate CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN LOCHER

Paid family leave was a big topic of discussion at the first Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday evening. But while all the candidates who were asked about the issue support a mandated family leave policy, they failed to mention the vital need to make sure new fathers have access to and take paid time off when their children arrive.

All three candidates who got a chance to speak — Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley — offered strong support for a nationwide paid family leave program.

“I remember as a young mother, you know, having a baby wake up who was sick and I’m supposed to be in court, because I was practicing law,” Clinton said. “I know what it’s like. And I think we need to recognize the incredible challenges that so many parents face, particularly working moms.”


Sanders agreed. “Every other major country on Earth, every one, including some small countries, say that when a mother has a baby, she should stay home with that baby,” he said. “We are the only major country. That is an international embarrassment that we do not provide family — paid family and medical leave.”

And O’Malley pointed out that he oversaw an expansion of paid leave while governor of Maryland. “The genius of our nation is that we find ways in every generation to include more of our people more fully in the economic life of our country, and we need to do that for our families, and especially so that women aren’t penalized in having to drop out of the workforce,” he said. “My wife, Katie, is here with our four kids. And, man, that was a juggle when we had little kids and — and keeping jobs and moving forwards. We would be a stronger nation economically if we had paid family leave.”

American mothers do need paid family leave. Without it, 40 percent of first-time mothers are forced to take unpaid leave, including a quarter who either quit or are fired when their babies arrive. Women who take paid leave, on the other hand, are more likely to return to the same jobs and to end up with raises afterward.

But paid family leave doesn’t work unless it is also made available to fathers. Encouraging fathers to take time off prevents reinforcing the idea that women are the ones who interrupt their careers to care for children. In Denmark, for example, parents are guaranteed up to a year of paid leave, but just two weeks are set aside for fathers. While some of the leave is shareable, men rarely take much of it, given that they make more money thanks to the gender wage gap. Because women end up taking most of the leave time, employers have a disincentive to hire young women who might become pregnant over a man who isn’t as likely to take that much time off. Meanwhile, women end up much more likely to work part-time because they are the ones who interrupt their careers to spend time with their children.

But countries that have strong paternity leave policies find the opposite to be true. Before Quebec implemented a “daddy quota” in its paid leave policy, where five weeks of the leave a family is given can only be taken by fathers, household duties were mostly taken care of by women. After the quota went into effect, though, fathers significantly increased how much time they spent on unpaid household work and mothers spent more time in paid employment, even seeing an increase in their incomes. In Sweden, mothers’ incomes rise 7 percent for every month of leave their husbands take. Other cross-country studies have found that in countries with generous paternity leave benefits that fathers actually take, the men end up doing much more child care.


The same has been found to be true in the U.S. Fathers who take two or more weeks off after the birth of their children end up more involved in their direct care later on and they also end up being more committed and competent fathers during the rest of their children’s lives. Their involvement in raising children helps relieve some of the burden from women and give them more time to devote to paid work.

Few American men get access to paid leave today. But the evidence is also clear that if they get it, they are likely to take it.

It’s notable that the issue of paid leave had such prominence in the presidential debate. As Sanders pointed out, the U.S. is a real outlier when it comes to paid leave. It is one of just three countries in the world not to guarantee paid maternity leave, while 70 others also guarantee paid paternity leave. But the issue of paid leave has mostly flown under the radar for decades. Many were even opposed to guaranteeing unpaid leave with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in the 1980s, when it was first being debated, claiming it was akin to communism and would bring down the capitalist system. Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) called the FMLA “another example of yuppie empowerment.”

Work/family issues like paid leave and child care were absent in presidential debates during the Bush years. But they reappeared in 2007, when Clinton and Obama debated paid leave and universal preschool. And they have now become mainstream among the Democratic party, with a bill introduced multiple times that would create a national paid family leave program and President Obama calling for its passage.

It’s gained so much traction that Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio has released his own paid leave plan, while other Republican contenders have been forced to respond to the issue.