On Monday, President Obama provided more fodder to critics who contend he’s no fan of American exceptionalism. In a speech to a White House conference on working families, he lamented the fact that the United States was the one developed nation that doesn’t provide paid maternity leave.
In an era when the vast majority of families must have both parents working just to make ends meet, our laissez-faire attitude toward taking care of the kids — newborns particularly — has overburdened millions of mothers and fathers. Many congressional Democrats are backing a bill by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D, and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D, that would provide up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave by raising the payroll tax on employers and employees by 0.2 percentage points. No Republicans support the measure. Obama, while declaring that the nation needs paid parental leave, has endorsed no specific proposal.
By highlighting the United States’ stand-alone position on paid parental leave, he has, however, raised the exceptionalism question yet again. How is it that, of the 185 nations and territories surveyed by the International Labor Organization, 182 have some form of paid leave (70 of them for fathers as well as mothers) while the United States, the Persian Gulf monarchy of Oman and Papua New Guinea don’t? How did America come to reject a policy that virtually every other nation views as a social and economic necessity?
On two occasions, the United States came close to recognizing an ongoing public responsibility for child care. During World War II, as millions of American mothers went to work in factories, the federal government established more than 3,000 child care facilities that enabled these Riveting Rosies to assemble tanks, ships and planes, with no apparent damage to the familial commitments of these Greatest Generation stalwarts. The centers were closed, however, as the war ended. Then, in 1971, as Gail Collins reported in her book, “When Everything Changed,” Congress passed, with substantial bipartisan support, the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have created a national network of federally funded child care centers. The bill was vetoed by President Richard Nixon, who, in a message significantly shaped by speechwriter Pat Buchanan, attacked the proposal as a radical preemption of parenting by the state.
Those two episodes represent the closest we’ve come to helping families hold down jobs without risking the well-being of their children. Since 1971, however, as tens of millions of women have entered the U.S. workforce, the nation’s social policy has failed to acknowledge this epochal change. Only three states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — have enacted paid parental or medical leave policies. In the private sector, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, just 11 percent of workers get paid family leave at their job. In the public sector, it’s 16 percent.
How to account for this nearly complete failure of American politics to address a fundamental change in work lives, one to which the rest of the planet has responded? Our views of the family aren’t more “traditional” or patriarchal than, say, those in the Arab monarchies that nonetheless have paid maternal leave. Our failure begins with the fact that the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, who increasingly dominate our politics, have no trouble affording quality child care. The rest of the population, however, suffers from a problem of agency: The collapse of the union movement (which was slow to prioritize this issue) has left no way for workers to bargain with their bosses for paid leave (or anything else).
Second, the mass entry of women into the workforce has coincided not only with unions’ disappearance but also with the rise of a near-fanatical anti-tax, anti-government right wing that keeps Republicans from supporting the most basic programs (highways, anyone?) if they’re funded through taxes (as, by definition, government programs are). A standard right-wing ploy to build anti-government sentiment among white voters has been to misrepresent such universal programs as Obamacare as helping only minorities.
Over the past 40 years, then, Republicans have aroused Americans’ ideological conservatism more skillfully than Democrats have mobilized Americans’ programmatic liberalism. A 2012 poll conducted for the National Partnership for Women and Families showed 86 percent support for paid parental leave (that includes the support of 73 percent of Republicans). But so long as the anti-government extremists who dominate Republican politics hold sway in Congress, paid parental leave will remain the longest of long shots.
Which is great for American exceptionalism. Just not so good for Americans.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.