Advocates for paid family leave have long faced a steep challenge in the United States.
The U.S. is the only Western nation – and one of the only countries in the world - that has no federal program providing paid time-off for parents to care for and bond with their newborns.
Only two states, New Jersey and California, have family leave insurance programs of their own that provide some compensation.
But now the work of two Rutgers scholars with the Center for Women and Work could revive a national conversation over paid parental leave, while broadening the public’s understanding of its impact on family health.
Karen White and Linda Houser have compiled a set of new questions for a respected national survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in partnership with state health departments. The survey, Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System, or PRAMS, asks women in 37 states, who have recently given birth, about their attitudes and experiences before, during, and shortly after pregnancy.
The questions compiled by White and Houser, which the CDC approved, but which still require that individual states consent to their inclusion, will add maternity leave to the mix of issues PRAMS covers The survey will ask, in part, whether the mother took time off beyond that needed for medical recovery, whether she was compensated, and whether the compensation came from an employer or from a state program.
Because PRAMS already provides a wealth of state-specific data on mother and infant health outcomes, the information generated from the new questions could show whether family leave, or the lack of it, has an impact on specific outcomes.
“What we want to know is whether there is a relationship between taking leave in the first place, and outcomes such as well-being, depression, breast feeding initiation, maintenance of breast feeding over time, making that first well child visit, and seeking maternal medical follow-up care,” said Houser, a post-doctoral associate with the center.
Additional questions, if used by the states, would seek other data, such as whether the father was able to take a leave.
The overall goal is to develop reliable data - there is currently a dearth of knowledge on the impact of paid family leave - that can be used to educate the public, as well as policy makers.
“We are looking to inform the policy makers and other stakeholders in the states who are considering the opportunity for paid leave and flexible workplace policies and practices,” said White, the director of the center’s work and family programs.
Founded in 1993, the center is part of the School of Management and Labor Relations, and promotes women’s advancement through its research on workplace issues and by fostering dialogue among decision-makers in corporations, government, labor, and community organizations.
The collaboration with PRAMS developed from the center’s interest in comparing family leave and maternal health outcomes in states with family leave insurance programs and those without it. White and Houser were put in touch with the CDC through the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, which collects the data for the PRAMS surveys for New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Discussions then commenced between the center and CDC on including the maternity leave questions in the survey.
The CDC produces a list of questions that each state must ask, and additional questions that the states have the option of asking. The questions developed by White and Houser were approved for the optional segment beginning in 2012 and, if selected, will be in effect for four years. They plan to contact state health departments to discuss the merits of adopting the questions, and will be speaking on the issue at an upcoming PRAMS conference in San Antonio.
“We’re very excited,” White said. “We’re pleased that (CDC) saw the value of the questions and the research on the effects of public policies that support paid maternity and bonding leave for working women. We hope the states will agree.”