Why mommy must go back to work


America has the 164th worst parental-leave policy in the world, Law School Dean Saul Levmore told the Women's Board at its annual dinner Thursday evening. In the United States new mothers and fathers get 12 weeks of unpaid time off. Norway, on the other hand, provides 42 weeks at full pay, plus child care up to age 6. In the United Kingdom, the first six weeks of a woman’s year off are paid at 90 percent of her salary. Even Rwanda "is pretty generous compared to us," Levmore said. "But I know what you're thinking," he told the 125 people at the Casino, a private club off Michigan Avenue. "It's not enforced." In fact, he said, one-third of eligible women in corruption-filled Rwanda receive parental-leave payments.

The U.S. policy may lie in America's abundance of babies, Levmore said: the higher a country's fertility rate, the less generous its parental-leave policy. The average American woman has 2.09 children—"perfect for replacement," Levmore said. With low fertility rates, most European nations worry about their social-security systems and other decreasing-population problems and so offer generous leave plans to encourage reproduction. America, with both a healthy birth rate and immigrants "trying to get in the country" for work, has no incentive to change its plan.

Yet offering parental leave to try to boost a country’s population, Levmore argued, doesn’t work as planned. "No country on record has been able to use its system to increase its fertility rate." Even in rare cases where the policies have begun to raise the population, new governments have taken over and reversed the programs before their effects could be studied.

There are other explanations for other countries’ generous programs. "Think of it as an insurance policy," Levmore said. In homogeneous countries such as Sweden, where most people earn comparable incomes and have the same number of kids, surveys show that residents often believe they'll have more than two children, think they'll benefit even more from a generous plan, and vote for it. Then they have two kids like everyone else.

In the United States, because private firms can either meet the government requirement or bolster it for recruitment, the result is a "a two-tier system" where lawyers and investment bankers, for example, get generous leave plans—sometimes four months at full pay, Levmore said—while paralegals and secretaries get the bare-bones 12 weeks with no pay. So while America may be going the logical route with its leave system, it's contributing to an income imbalance, Levmore said, that's more third world than first.


Photo: Levmore speaks to the Women's Board's annual dinner.

Photo by Dan Dry

January 28, 2008