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New York's Real Wealth Producers Hungry for Paid Family Leave

03/27/2015 03:42 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015

What a winter of discontent for New York's parents. Strep, sub-zero temps, tantrums. Then Andrew Cuomo declared there was "little" appetite for paid family leave. The governor may be a glutton for women's equality. Still, there's only so much equalizing one can do. He had just unveiled a new policy to address the growing crisis of sexual assault on college campuses.

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But where has he been? The United States is the only advanced economy without a national paid-leave law. Only three states -- California, New Jersey and Rhode Island -- offer this critical support for working men and women. Even Human Rights Watch has noticed, citing America for failing its families in a scathing report a few years back. In the latest edition of Expecting Better, a report card issued annually by the National Partnership for Women and Families, not a single state merited an "A." California took home an A-minus, New Jersey, a B-plus, and New York, a lackluster B-minus.

The rest of the world has been carefully attuned to the changing dynamics of work and family. But we've been slow on the uptake. Demographics have shifted radically since the "Mad Men" era, when men worked and women minded the hearth. In the majority of American families today, all adults are in the workforce and two-thirds of dual-earner couples work a combined total of more than 80 hours a week. Many more families are also headed by a single working parent--most often, mother -- and more than 60 percent of women with children under the age of three are in the workforce.

Balancing work and family is especially tough for low-income parents, whose jobs offer few benefits. Only five percent of private sector workers earning in the lowest quartile of wages has access to paid family leave from their employers. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which offers unpaid leave, isn't a viable option for them. Nearly one out of every ten workers who has taken advantage of its provisions has been forced to seek public assistance to keep afloat.

Today's parents across the income spectrum are clamoring for relief, envious of generous policies abroad. Here, parents are left in the lurch, pining for Finland's baby box, a tradition since the 1930s, while hordes of Americans were battling the dust storms that damaged the ecology and agriculture of the prairies. A gift to all Finns, the box, with a mattress, duvet cover and quilt, serves as the infant's first bed, its contents a sight for new parents' sore, tired eyes.

Among the goodies are a snowsuit, hats, and insulated mittens and booties, the better to guard against the frigid Nordic temperatures. Onesies and leggings are also included -- in unisex patterns -- as well as a hooded bath towel, nail scissors, toothbrush, and wash cloth. They throw in a picture book, teething toy, and even bra pads, for nursing mothers.

Cuomo couldn't be more out of touch with the needs of the millennial generation. According to the Pew Research Center, which tracks social and demographic trends, a solid majority of young adults in their prime child-rearing years has embraced good parenting as a high priority. The percentage of women in this calculus is still higher, but the gap continues to narrow. As a recent study from the Center for Women & Business at Bentley University noted "both men and women are seeking the same type of workplace where they can be their true selves." Companies that remain inflexible risk losing men as well as women. This generation is on its own path to gender equality, with a new set of family values.

We have a model, right next door, in New Jersey. The program grants workers up to six weeks of paid leave to care for new babies or ill relatives. The cost is covered by a minimal employee deduction -- no more than 60 cents a week. In a survey of human resource executives, Business as Usual, released by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in 2014, none of them reported problems with company productivity, and 89 percent said there had been no negative impact on profitability.

The governor is ignoring parents -- the state's most significant wealth creators. They produce children, our human capital -- a job for which they receive no salary, pension benefits, profits, or dividends. Without this bounty, our most precious natural resource, New York's economic future is seriously at risk.