Expert Commentary

Paid family leave: What the research says

A quarter century of research finds paid parental leave can offer physical and mental health benefits for parents and children.

(Shanice McKenzie /

In the lead-up to the 2020 elections, the Journalist’s Resource team is combing through the Democratic presidential candidates’ platforms and reporting what the research says about their policy proposals. We want to encourage deep coverage of these proposals — and to do our part to help deter horse race journalism, which research suggests can lead to inaccurate reporting and an uninformed electorate. We’re focusing on proposals that have a reasonable chance of becoming policy, and for us that means at least 3 of the 5 top-polling candidates say they intend to tackle the issue. Here we look at what the research says about paid family leave.

Candidates favoring paid family leave

Michael Bennet*, Joe Biden, Cory Booker*, Pete Buttigieg*, Julián Castro*, John Delaney*, Tulsi Gabbard*, Amy Klobuchar*, Bernie Sanders*, Tom Steyer*, Elizabeth Warren*, Marianne Williamson*, Andrew Yang*

What the research says

A quarter century of research finds that paid parental leave — an employee benefit that allows parents to take temporary, paid leave from work to care for a child following a birth or adoption — can offer physical and mental health benefits for parents and children. The ideal length of paid parental leave appears less settled as far as peer-reviewed research goes, though academic and non-academic recommendations range from three-and-a-half months to roughly nine months.

Peer-reviewed research focuses on parental leave, though existing state-level family leave programs also offer paid time off work to care for sick loved ones. Paid family leave programs typically offer partial — not complete — replacement of wages up to a maximum weekly payout.

Key context

Early childhood is a critical period that determines lifelong health outcomes, a substantial body of research shows. The U.S. has one of the highest infant mortality rates among advanced economies. Paid parental leave can reduce the share of low-weight births, potentially because mothers may experience less stress if they know they have access to paid leave, according to research in the Journal of Health Economics. Paid leave may also lead to higher wages for children by the time they reach age 30. Americans largely believe employers should pay for family leave to care for children born or adopted, or to care for sick loved ones, according to a 2017 study from the Pew Research Center.

The U.S. remains the largest country by far that does not federally mandate paid family leave, though more than 2 million federal government workers might soon get paid leave benefits as part of a proposed Department of Defense authorization bill.

Biden and Williamson broadly favor paid family leave without offering specifics. Delaney favors eight weeks of leave at 60% monthly pay. Remaining candidates support at least 12 weeks of paid leave, as they explain on their websites or by way of their co-sponsorship of the FAMILY Act, introduced in the House and Senate in February 2019. The FAMILY Act would offer 12 weeks of family leave at a monthly maximum of $4,000 and minimum of $580, funded by a payroll tax split between employees and employers.

Booker would aim for six months paid leave for workers to care for a child, partner or parent or themselves, with full wages for low-income workers. Sanders and Steyer have also said they support at least six months of leave. Yang wants a federal mandate that employers offer nine months total of paid family leave for two-parent families, or six months of leave for single-parent families. These timeframes line up with the World Health Organization’s recommendation for exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of life. The International Labour Organization, an agency of the United Nations, recommends at least 14 weeks of maternal leave.

Michael Bloomberg* and Deval Patrick*, newcomers to the race, haven’t yet staked out clear policy positions on paid family leave.

By federal law, workers can take three months of unpaid leave without risk of losing their jobs, though only about 60% of private-sector employees are eligible. As of March 2019, roughly 19% of workers have access to employer-provided paid family leave, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Larger employers are more likely to provide paid family leave, with 28% of businesses with at least 500 workers offering the benefit. Only 8% of part-time workers have access to paid family leave. High-wage workers are much more likely to have paid family leave: 34% of the highest 10% of earners have access, compared to 6% among the lowest 10% of earners.

California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island offer paid family leave programs for people who work in those states. California has the longest-running paid leave program, which workers pay into whether or not they take paid leave. The District of Columbia, Washington state and Massachusetts are phasing in paid family leave programs over the next several years. Dozens of other states are at various stages toward passing paid leave laws.

Formative findings

Germany lays claim to the world’s first maternity leave law, enacted in 1883, according to a January 2005 paper in The Economic Review examining parental leave policies in 18 advanced economies. That paper, along with other early research on paid leave, looked at how paid leave affects infant mortality. Paid leave had the largest effect on children age 1 month to 1 year. The findings predict that a 10-week extension in paid leave decreases mortality rates for babies in that age group by 4.1%.

Notably, that paper associates better outcomes for infants with paid leave, not unpaid leave. Author Sakiko Tanaka writes that “if leave is provided without adequate payment and job protection, parental leave‐taking behavior may not be very responsive and may result in mothers’ early return to work.”

Those findings are consistent with earlier findings. One of the first studies of paid leave and infant health in advanced economies, published April 1995 in the Southern Economic Journal, found each additional week of paid maternity leave reduced infant mortality by 0.5 per 1,000 live births. A year of job-protected paid leave for mothers is associated with a 20% decline in deaths among children in that 1 month to 1 year age range, finds a November 2000 study in the Journal of Health Economics.

Recent research

A review of research on paid family leave programs around the world, first published in January 2017 as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, finds that paid maternity leave of less than one year increased employment rates for mothers after they gave birth while a leave of longer than one year can hurt women’s earnings and employment and career advancement.

Stanford University economist Maya Rossin-Slater writes in the working paper that there is “no evidence that firm turnover or wage costs change when leave-taking rates rise — in fact, the average firm has a lower per-worker wage bill and a lower turnover rate today than it did before [California’s paid leave program] was introduced.”

California’s paid family leave program took effect in 2004. The program offers six weeks of paid leave, capped at $1,252 per week. As the nation’s oldest program, it is also the most researched.

Paid leave in California is associated with higher odds that mothers will be working after their children’s first birthday, finds research in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management published in February 2016. The program is also associated with 10 to 20 percentage points higher rates of breastfeeding at key points in a child’s life — the first three, six and nine months — according to research in Economics and Human Biology published in January 2015. Eligible fathers in California were 46% more likely to take paid leave after the program began, according to research in JPAM from November 2017. Parents had a greater likelihood of feeling like they were coping well with day-to-day parenting demands after the state’s paid family leave law passed, according to a July 2019 study in the Journal of Health Economics.

Other recent research focuses on how paid family leave affects infant health. One study from October 2018 in JPAM found in the five years after the law was passed that hospital admissions for infants in California declined between 3% and 6%. That corresponds to as many as 4,380 fewer child hospitalizations and an estimated $218 million reduction in medical charges per year.

“Given our results, paid leave policies could indirectly help contain the United States’ exploding hospitalization costs, as infants account for more hospitalizations per year than any other single year of age,” write authors Ariel Marek Pihl and Gaetano Basso.

After paid family leave was enacted, kids ages 5 to 10 in California were less likely to be overweight or have hearing problems or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, suggests another JPAM paper from July 2017.

While there are documented, positive benefits for children and families under California’s family leave program, those benefits might not be evenly distributed. A third of workers did not apply for paid leave because the program didn’t replace enough of their wages, according to a 2014 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor. Another department-funded report that year analyzed data from a national employer survey the Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts and found “access to paid family leave is very inequitable, with the lowest wage earners being much less likely than higher earners to receive paid family leave.”

There are roughly 10 times more paid leave claims each year in California for caring for a new child than for caring for a sick loved one, according to a May 2018 paper from the American Economic Association’s Papers and Proceedings. The largest share of women who take paid leave to bond with new children work in health and retail while the for men the largest shares who take paid leave work in retail and manufacturing.

“To the extent that [paid family leave] in the United States has positive impacts on workers’ labor market trajectories and child well-being, our findings highlight that increasing [paid family leave] take-up among the least advantaged families may be an important tool for weakening the persistence of economic inequality,” write authors Sarah Bana, Kelly Bedard and Rossin-Slater.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis from January 2019 sheds new light on how paid family leave breaks down across ethnic and racial lines. Using data from four nationally representative surveys — two from 2008, one from 2011 and one from 2016 — the bureau finds access to paid parental leave is roughly 24 percentage points higher for white, non-Hispanic workers compared to Hispanic workers. Differences were minimal in access to paid parental leave for black and white workers, according to the report.

Further reading

Paid Family Leave and Breastfeeding: Evidence from California

Jessica E. Pac, Ann P. Bartel, Christopher J. Ruhm, Jane Waldfogel. National Bureau of Economic Research, April 2019.

The gist: “Our estimates indicate that [paid family leave] increases the overall duration of breastfeeding by nearly 18 days, and the likelihood of breastfeeding for at least six months by 5 percentage points. We find substantially larger effects of [paid family leave] on breastfeeding duration for some disadvantaged mothers.”

Work–Family Policy Trade-Offs for Mothers? Unpacking the Cross-National Variation in Motherhood Earnings Penalties

Michelle J. Budig, Joya Misra and Irene Boeckmann. Work and Occupations, November 2015.

The gist: “For policy makers contemplating which policies might be most effective at reducing pay inequities, the answer is clear: Policies that serve to keep women attached to the labor market, through moderate-length leaves, publicly funded childcare, lower marginal tax rates on second earner income, as well as support for father involvement after a birth, appear most effective at reducing the motherhood penalty.”

Female Labor Supply: Why is the United States Falling Behind?

Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn. American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings, May 2013.

The gist: “Our analysis of women’s labor force participation and family-friendly policies suggests that there may be a trade-off between some policies that make it easier for women to combine work and family and women’s advancement at work.”

Effects of Early Maternal Employment on Maternal Health and Well-being

Pinka Chatterji, Sara Markowitz and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn. Journal of Population Economics, January 2013.

The gist: “Among mothers of 6-month-old infants, maternal work hours are positively associated with depressive symptoms and parenting stress and negatively associated with self-rated overall health. However, maternal employment is not associated with quality of parenting at 6 months, based on trained assessors’ observations of maternal sensitivity.”

A Flying Start? Maternity Leave Benefits and Long-Run Outcomes of Children

Pedro Carneiro, Katrine V. Løken and Kjell G. Salvanes. Journal of Political Economy, April 2015.

The gist: “Our results suggest that policies facilitating increases in parents’ time with children during the first year of life may have a positive impact on children’s abilities later in life, especially if there are no existing maternity leave benefits within the jurisdiction in question. This has been an important argument behind expansions in maternity leave programs across many countries. However, this study is the first to show that the argument may be empirically justified in terms of children’s long-term outcomes.”

Subject experts

Sarah Bana, postdoctoral associate, MIT Sloan School of Management.

Stephen Bezruchka, senior lecturer, University of Washington.

Francine Blau, Frances Perkins Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and professor of economics, Cornell University.

Claudia Goldin, Henry Lee Professor of Economics, Harvard University.

Maya Rossin-Slater, assistant professor, Stanford University.

Christopher Ruhm, professor of public policy and economics, University of Virginia.

Jenna Stearns, assistant professor, University of California, Davis.

Jane Waldfogel, Compton Foundation Centennial Professor of Social Work for the Prevention of Children’s and Youth Problems, Columbia University.


*Dropped out of race since publication date.

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