By Michael Lewis, Guest Contributor
President Obama made a splash on June 23 when he took four working families out to lunch at Chipotle after announcing his support for some kind of paid maternity leave in the United States. In his statement, the president said that the U.S. is the only developed country that does not offer working women any sort of paid leave to give birth or spend time with a newborn. In fact, President Obama said, “many women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth—that’s a pretty low bar.”
The President’s announcement of support received little media attention as he failed to back a concrete piece of legislation to back up his support for paid maternity leave. His political opponents—many of them champions of the pro-life movement—dismissed the idea as another unnecessary, expensive government program. Obama walks the walk on paid leave, however—White House employees receive six weeks paid leave to give birth, a policy instituted when the President took office in 2009. Perhaps the disinterested reaction is not a result of our lack of caring for new mothers, but a reflection of the low value American society places on having children.
It used to be men and women married at 20 or 21, the husband had a good job that paid well, and they bought a home and had babies. Such was the American dream when our parents were growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Dad worked to pay the bills and put food on the table, and Mom took care of the kids.
Now, however, many young people of prime childbearing age are pursuing advanced degrees and careers—and thereby delaying pregnancy—partly out of ambition and partly out of financial necessity. The widespread use of contraception makes it easy to remove the procreative aspect from sexual love, and many women are finding that when they get around to trying to conceive, their years (or decades) on the pill permanently altered their bodies, making conception difficult.
In addition, today’s economy makes it hard for families to survive on one income, and as the President said, taking time off to have a baby can be a financial burden for many middle class families. The Family Medical Leave Act provides employees with up to 12 weeks of medical leave, but for the vast majority of workers, this benefit is unpaid, and again, many cannot afford to lose three months of income. In contrast, countries such as Canada offer up to 17 weeks of leave, with compensation of 55% of wages up to 15 weeks. Sweden offers 480 days per child, at 80% of salary. Other nations such as Poland, Germany, France, Slovakia and other Eastern European countries offer varying levels of benefits for new parents, paid for by Social Security programs or national health funds.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut has proposed a paid maternity leave program, which would be financed by an additional payroll tax of 0.02%, or a measly two cents on the dollar. Thus far, the President has declined to endorse DeLauro’s bill, perhaps out of concern of breaking his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class. Others say a new government program is a nonstarter, citing out of control debt and spending in Washington.
It seems to me, as a pro-life, pro-family Catholic that some kind of paid maternity leave would have more economic benefits than downsides in the long run and help reduce abortions, as low-income families wouldn’t face financial ruin from having a baby. It could be an opt-in program where employees choose to pay extra payroll tax. Seems to me that if we as pro-family conservatives hold life as precious and view motherhood as a most honorable vocation, this ought to be a no-brainer, as a new individual, in the course of a lifetime of output and taxes paid, is a net economic gain.
If we as pro-lifers truly want to create a culture of life in the U.S., we must place a premium on motherhood and fatherhood, and equip our brothers and sisters with the tools necessary to avoid making children a financial burden. If parenting is indeed the most honorable vocation which God can bestow on us, we must work not only for laws which protect the sanctity of human life, but laws necessary to sustain the dignity of family and economic life. This may require getting our hands dirty, so to speak, but as Pope Francis reminded us in his March 13, 2013 homily, “Politics is a noble activity. We should revalue it, practice it with vocation and a dedication that requires testimony, martyrdom, that is to die for the common good.”
In an interview with America, the Holy Father said, “There is a ‘holy middle class,’ which we can all be part of…“I see the holiness in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity. This is for me the common sanctity.”
Let us work to ensure that our family values pervade all of our social and policy endeavors.
Michael Lewis attended Catholic University before transferring to UNC, from which he received a degree in public health in 2009. He is an associate director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, which is the public policy agency representing the policy interests of Virginia’s two Bishops and their dioceses before the Virginia General Assembly, the U.S. Congress, the state and federal administrations and their agencies. Michael is also a graduate student pursuing a master’s in government and a law degree at Regent University. He is newly married to Kimberly and lives in Richmond, Virginia.
The views expressed by Mr. Lewis are his own and should not be construed as representing those of the Virginia Catholic Conference.