As American As Apple Pie: The Lack of Paid Parental Benefits in the United States

Source: International Labour Office Maternity Protection Database.

Source: International Labour Office Maternity Protection Database.

By Elizabeth O’Gorek

My husband and I recently moved to the United States. He accepted an good job offer in a nice city. The company arranged my work visa, and there is a good benefits package. So, in preparation for working and working on a family, I thought I’d research the legislation on paid maternity benefits.

This is what I learned: The United States is the only industrialized nation – and one of only four nations—that has no federally legislated paid maternity leave (let alone paternity leave).[1]

An American social welfare system exists. It is huge and complicated, combining government spending, tax benefits and breaks with private social benefits. According to a 2012 report by the Rutgers Center for Women and Work, 11 percent of private employees and 17 percent of public employees reported access to paid family leave through their employer. Those without private benefits cobble coverage together from sick days, vacation, and savings.

This lack of legislated benefits surprised me, since American culture is so opinionated about parenting choices. Last month when New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy missed the first two games of the regular season for paternity leave, commentators said that he’d best support his family by earning a paycheque, and that he ought to “get his a** back to” work. Conversely, when Marissa Mayer was appointed CEO of Yahoo! commentators doubted that the pregnant Mayer would be able to “raise both a child and stock prices.” When she returned to work a mere two weeks after giving birth (perhaps to prove she could do just that) bloggers argued that she was betraying female solidarity by minimizing the difficulties associated with childbirth.

Both Murphy and Mayer are affluent and so they have the freedom to do whatever they wish. Still, they were criticized as breadwinner and mother, respectively. I’m not surprised that the internet exploded with opinion at these choices. I’m surprised, given the rhetoric about “the nation’s children” that commentators focus on what these decisions were, rather than the fact that most Americans have no choice.

The explanation must lie in American History.

"Mother and daughter in saloon-restaurant, Gemmel, Minnesota. The mother is the proprietor." August 1937. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [LC-USF3301-011299-M2]

“Mother and daughter in saloon-restaurant, Gemmel, Minnesota. The mother is the proprietor.” August 1937. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [LC-USF3301-011299-M2]

In the early twentieth century, the United States based its maternal policies in protectionism. Where European nations provided maternity benefits, initially as a public health measure and then as part of a social welfare program available to all citizens, American laws protected women from the unhealthful consequences of working, treating them as mothers first and workers second.[2]

As historian Alice Kessler-Harris has pointed out, the protectionist stance created some advantages for women, but it also saw them primarily as mothers.[3] Men were expected to be breadwinners. When the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, it linked social benefits such as Employment Insurance and Old Age pension to wage earners. Single mothers could only directly access means-tested programs such as Aid to Dependent Children. Entitlement was tied to wage earning, creating two different kinds of citizenship, the deserved and the undeserved.

At the time this was seen as fair. In the 1930s, women were expected to be married and share a husband’s benefits –85 percent of families claimed a single breadwinner. But single mothers and widowed mothers were relegated to the welfare roles. Race and class also had an impact. Affluent white women were encouraged to stay at home with their families while poor women and women of other races were looked at with suspicion, encouraged to go out and support their families rather than sponging off the system.

"Lakeview nursery school for children of working mothers, operated by the Board of Education at the tuition fee of three dollars weekly. Gary's father brings him to school because he goes to work later than his mother." May 1943. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [LC-USW3-028414-D]

“Lakeview nursery school for children of working mothers, operated by the Board of Education at the tuition fee of three dollars weekly. Gary’s father brings him to school because he goes to work later than his mother.” May 1943. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [LC-USW3-028414-D]

During World War II, about half of American women worked outside their homes. After, women were encouraged to return to their homes and surrender their jobs to returning men; still, 24 percent of women and 35 percent of mothers with school-aged children were working outside the home in the first years of the 1950s. These numbers rose by about ten percent in every decade.

Today there is federal legislation for unpaid leave. In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which mandates 12 weeks of unpaid leave. To qualify, one has to have worked a minimum of hours in the last year for a business with more than fifty employees. That rules out 95 percent of employers, according to a 1988 study. It also cuts out the part-time employees, the ones that probably can’t afford to take unpaid leave anyway – frequently women, racial minorities, and youth.[4]

It doesn’t do much. Still, when the FMLA was first passed in 1991, it was vetoed by then President George H.W. Bush, who said that he strongly object[ed] . . . to the federal government mandating leave policies for America’s employers and work force.”[5]  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued that the FMLA would place undue burdens on business. Though studies show that women value family leave benefits about twice as much as men, the gender-neutral character of the bill satisfied feminist concerns about “equality” versus “difference.”

In 1982, Lillian Garland took disability leave through her employer’s private insurance due to a difficult pregnancy. When she returned from her disability leave, she was told her job had been filled. She alleged gender discrimination. The case went to the Supreme Court, where five years later it was found in her favor. She told the Chicago Tribune that “Women should not have to choose between having a job and having a baby.”

It’s been nearly thirty years, and for many women, it’s still the only choice they have.

Elizabeth O’Gorek is a PhD candidate at York University. Her research examines American masculinities from 1950 to 1980 through the lens of mainstream erotic magazines. She currently lives in Washington, DC.

Footnotes
[1] Beth Stevens, “Blurring the Boundaries: How the Federal Government Has Influences Welfare Benefits in the Private Sector,” in The Politics of Social Policy in the United States, ed. Margaret Weir, Ann Shola Orloff and Theda Skocpol (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1988), 123-148.

[2] Lise Vogel, Mothers on the Job: Maternity Policy in the U.S. Workplace (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 15-19. 26.

[3] This paragraph draws on both Alice Kessler-Harris, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) and Linda Gordon, Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890-1935 (New York: MacMillan, 1994).

[4] U.S. Department of the Treasury. General Accounting Office. Parental Leave: Estimated Cost of Revised Parental and Medical Leave Act Proposal, GAO/HRD-88-132 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1988), 2.

[5] Stephen Kurkjian, “Bush Vetoes Family Leave Legislation; Cites Bill’s Mandatory Provision,” The Boston Globe, 30 June 1990.

2 thoughts on “As American As Apple Pie: The Lack of Paid Parental Benefits in the United States

  1. David Zylberberg

    Some interesting thoughts on an important topic. I was struck while reading that many of the same cultural values could be found in Canada or Scandinavia in the 20th century. I am particularly thinking of Nordic maternalism. It makes me wonder why these places brought in rather extensive parental leave and the US didn’t. I know that this is outside of your scope, but I expect that a comparative political history of how these benefits developed in many countries would be worth someone researching.

  2. Teresa Iacobelli

    I am also a Canadian woman currently living in the US and I too find the lack of maternity benefits astounding. What bothers me most is the amount of empty lip-service and rhetoric paid to the issue. Political leaders/media constantly talk about the importance of motherhood, the ‘hardest job on earth’, etc. etc., however, these empty platitudes are never backed up by any political actions or legislative reforms that would reflect these views. It is not even an issue on the political radar. Another Mother’s Day gone by, and while I’m sure that many women find brunch and flowers quite lovely, many young mothers would be even happier with paid leave, and more affordable childcare options. Perhaps women need to organize around these issues (add to an already packed schedule) and make next year’s Mother’s Day a day of action/protest.

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