Paid-leave benefits lagging for working moms

WASHINGTON — Nearly half of working women who give birth are forgoing paychecks to care for their newborns as employers become selective about granting paid leave. Lower-educated mothers are nearly four times more likely than college graduates to be denied paid maternity benefits, the widest the gap has been over the past 50 years.

The Census Bureau analysis released Thursday highlights the patchwork of work-family arrangements in the United States, which, unlike most countries, lacks a federal policy on paid parental leave. The analysis finds that while more companies since the 1960s have been offering paid leave to women for time off for pregnancy, birth and child care, the share of first-time mothers who received such benefits more recently has leveled off.

The census report comes amid a longer-term trend of widening U.S. income inequality caused by slowing wage growth at the middle- and lower-income levels.

Women with high-school diplomas or less saw drop-offs in paid-leave benefits from the early 2000s to the period covering 2006 to 2008, which includes the first year of the recession.

"This isn't good news for women at the bottom, and the irony is that the people with the most children are now the least likely to have the supports they need," said Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University and author of the book "The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family."


Women with higher birth rates in the United States are on average younger, less educated and typically Hispanic, and they are more likely to toil in lower-wage positions. If first-time mothers don't receive paid-leave benefits, they often return to their jobs quickly after giving birth, or sacrifice a steady paycheck by taking unpaid leave or quitting altogether to spend additional time with their newborns.

About 50.8 percent of first-time mothers said they used some kind of paid leave, which includes maternity, sick and vacation time, from 2006 to 2008, the most recent years for which figures are available, according to the census report. That is unchanged from 2001 to 2005, but up from 37.3 percent in the 1981-1985 period, when federal laws barring pregnancy discrimination in employment were starting to take fuller effect.

About 66 percent of women with a bachelor's degree or higher were able to use paid leave, up from 61 percent earlier in the past decade. In contrast, 18 percent of women who had less than a high school education received the paid-leave benefits during 2006-2008, down from 26 percent earlier.

The nearly 4-to-1 gap between college graduates and high-school dropouts is the widest it's been over the half-century that the Census Bureau has tracked such data. The disparity was essentially the same in 1991-1995.

High school graduates also were less likely than earlier in the decade to use paid leave, 32 percent compared with 39 percent. Among women who had some college schooling but lacked a bachelor's degree, about 47 percent said they received paid time off for pregnancy, birth and child care, unchanged from the early 2000s.

The census data "really indicate that access to paid leave is limited, and it's also sharply regressive," said Lynda Laughlin, a family demographer at the Census Bureau who put together the report. "For working families where the norm now is for both Mom and Dad to work, not having some kind of paycheck coming in while they take time to take care of a child can be a real financial burden."

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