Today’s fathers are more engaged in taking care of their families than ever before. From 1965 to 2011, fathers nearly tripled the time they spent on child care. As fathers take on these duties, they need access to paid leave—for children, caregiving, and their own or their families’ serious medical issues. But all American workers, including fathers, do not have sufficient access to family and medical leave. This Father’s Day, it’s important to remember that public policy has a role in giving fathers and their families the support they need to care for each other.
Family and medical leave benefits everyone—but not enough U.S. workers have access
Family leave policies benefit fathers, mothers, and children. In a study of working fathers in the United States, those who took leave lasting two weeks or more were much more likely to stay involved in caring for their child in the future, compared with those who took less leave. Evidence from surveys in other developed countries supports this finding. When fathers in the United Kingdom take paid leave, for example, mothers report higher well-being three months after giving birth. In France, new mothers are less likely to experience postpartum depression when paternity leave results in men taking on more infant care. And in Sweden, every additional month of parental leave taken by fathers boosts mothers’ earnings by an estimated 6.7 percent.
Of the 20 million people in the United States who take family and medical leave every year—including through state or employer paid leave programs—and unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 45 percent are men. Only 17 percent of the men who currently take family and medical leave every year do so for the birth, foster placement, or adoption of a new child, while 83 percent take leave to provide care for a loved one’s serious illness or to recover from a serious illness of their own. These rates are similar to leave-taking rates among women. Of the women who take leave, 78 percent take it for caregiving or medical leave, and 24 percent take it for the birth of a new child.
Further, only 60 percent of American workers are currently eligible for unpaid leave under the FMLA, and only 13 percent of private-sector employees have employer-provided paid family and medical leave. Polling shows that 89 percent of fathers think it is “important for employers to offer paid paternity or parental leave.” More than two-thirds of fathers want to split caregiving for their children evenly with their spouse, but only one-third report being able to do so.
Access to paid family and medical leave increases parity between spouses
California’s paid family leave policy more than doubled the rate of men who took leave after the birth of a child—increasing both the number of men who took leave and the amount of leave they took. In 2013, new fathers in California took an average of 31.4 days of paid bonding leave, compared with the 21.8 unpaid days that fathers nationwide took under the FMLA.
Yet while many families want to have more parity between spouses, the bulk of child care and other unpaid family caregiving still falls to women. This imbalance makes it harder for women to work full time and to stay in the workforce after having a child, especially if they do not have paid leave, do not qualify for unpaid leave, or cannot afford to take unpaid leave. Men having access to paid leave—as well as the ability to take it—has been shown to lessen the negative economic consequences for women and improve well-being for entire families. More equitable leave-taking is good for both men and women, but only access to comprehensive and accessible paid leave will ensure that they are able to take advantage of its benefits.
Fathers need access and an adequate salary replacement rate in order to take leave. Eighty-six percent of fathers surveyed by the Boston College Center for Work and Family said that they would be hesitant to take leave unless at least 70 percent of their salaries were paid during their time off. A review of policies in countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development noted the importance of financial incentives in boosting take-up rates by fathers. Sweden, Norway, and Iceland have encouraged fathers to take leave by allotting specific leave for fathers, and Sweden offers couples who split leave equally a monetary bonus.
Fathers deserve more than Trump’s parental leave plan offers
Unfortunately, the replacement rate for paid leave offered under President Donald Trump’s plan, proposed in the 2018 budget, is unlikely to be sufficient for many families. While the details of Trump’s paid parental leave plan remain murky, it is clear that the proposal would be insufficient for working families: It fails to cover the many circumstances in which families need leave, such as when a spouse or child needs prolonged care for an illness; it would likely exclude millions of working families, since it is based on the already underinclusive unemployment insurance system; and its wage replacement rate for those who do qualify is unlikely to be adequate. Given the cost estimate for the plan outlined in the Trump administration budget—$18.5 billion over 10 years—and the Trump campaign’s original prediction about how many families would access the benefit, the average weekly benefit would be less than $240—less than minimum wage. Lastly, Trump’s plan provides no details on anti-discrimination policies or protections against retaliation for taking leave.
An effective paid family and medical leave policy must cover all workers and be inclusive of all families; address families’ need for parental leave, medical leave, and caregiving leave; provide sufficient wage replacement to ensure that families can afford to take leave; and ensure that workers are not retaliated against for taking leave. One example of a comprehensive proposal can be seen in the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would build on existing unpaid leave under the FMLA to provide 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to eligible workers. Fathers and their families deserve such a comprehensive policy.
Kate Bahn is an economist at the Center for American Progress. Sunny Frothingham is the senior researcher for women’s economic policy at the Center.