Tomorrow, Feb. 5, is the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act by President Bill Clinton. The spotlight shone on the bill because it was the first he signed into law after having taken the oath of office. The law represented a milestone for women; it marked the beginning of a conversation about family values that helped families.
The law enabled working mothers to take three months off work after childbirth without fear of being fired. It allowed seniors and others to take time off for medical reasons.
Opposition had been fierce. The bill had been vetoed twice by former President H.W. Bush on the grounds that it would hurt business. Pressure from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had forced some limiting compromises. Most importantly, the law does not permit any form of paid leave. Only those who work for companies that employ 50 or more employees qualify.
When the law was signed, supporters consoled themselves by believing that this first step would soon be followed by the next step of paid leave. Twenty years later, mothers and dads are still waiting. In the meantime, almost every other country around the globe has instituted a form of paid maternity leave. There is a tiny trio of countries that do not: Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and the United States.
The same coalition of national business leaders who fought the law at the outset, predicting dire consequences then, continue to do so now. It is easy, but inaccurate to label any legislation which makes it easier for working families to combine family and work responsibilities "job killers."
It is difficult to find evidence for that claim. The countries that have generous family/work policies also have high productivity. The World Economic Forum's Global Competitive (2010-2011 Index lists Switzerland (which provides 98 days) as number one, and Sweden and Singapore next. All three are miles ahead of the U.S.
Why is paid maternity leave important? Unpaid leave does not work well for a family with a new baby. The mother can stay home with her newborn but she has to give up her paycheck for three months, just at the time new expenses put stress on the budget. Or, she can go right back to work, and give up that important time of bonding with her infant.
Studies show that the health of the baby and the mother improve when the mother can spend those critical days at home. Women are more likely to return to work, if they can take this time off after childbirth.
One of the consequences of America's lack of sensible family/work policies, like maternity leave and access to workplace flexibility is our soaring child poverty rate. At 22 percent we have the unfortunate distinction of having the highest child poverty rate of any developed country. That statistic, we know, will be a job killer when those children grow up, many of whom will not have the skills to be employed and contributing members of society.
The best antidote to poverty remains simple -- a paycheck. Policies like paid family leave, workplace flexibility and affordable quality childcare can make the difference for two parent or single parent working families who struggle to make ends meet.
The best way to celebrate 20 years of the Family and Medical Leave Act is to take the next step -- and insert the word paid into the law. To succeed we must take back the words "family values" and truly value families who struggle to be both loving parents and good providers. The result will be both stronger, more self sufficient families, and a stronger more prosperous nation.
Follow Madeleine M. Kunin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MadeleineKunin