U.S. lags behind the rest of the world in paid leave

White House Summit on Working Families

US President Barack Obama speaks during the White House Summit on Working Families on June 23, 2014 at a hotel in Washington, DC. 

Today, the Obama administration hosted the White House Summit on Working Families. It rolled out some new policy proposals, and focused attention on maternity and paternity leave, where the U.S. is an outlier in global rankings.

There were panels and plenaries, on topics like caregiving and compensation. Victoria Budson runs the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University, and she says the U.S. has some dubious distinctions. For one, it is “the only industrialized nation in the world that has no mandatory paid leave.”

About ten percent of Americans in the private sector can get some paid leave when they have kids.

“You know, this is a real black eye for the United States,” says Pamela Stone, a sociologist at Hunter College. She says today’s summit was designed to get more Americans to take notice.

“Something like this is really important for raising the visibility of an issue, but also legitimating an issue,” Stone says. “Telling people out there, this is an issue for you.”

The president brought the legitimacy, but the White House must have figured some star power could boost the summit’s visibility -- or get more Americans to watch the event’s live stream. So, organizers invited actress Christina Hendricks to participate.

Hendricks said she was proud to be representing, as she put it, “a working woman in two decades” -- Hendricks, the actress, and the character she plays on “Mad Men.”

“One who is fighting in the past for equality and one who is very, very excited to finally see that dream realized,” she said.

The upshot of today’s summit, however, is that dream has not been fully realized. According to Linda Houser, a professor of social work at Widener University, these issues have become increasingly visible.

“I mean, there are very few people that, in the course of their lives, don’t either care for a child or an adult,” she says.

But despite that, policies haven’t kept up.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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