Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and America....what do these countries all have in common?
A Census Bureau analysis released last week indicates that all three countries, along with a handful of others, do not require paid maternity benefits on a national level.
With an ever widening gap, the most pronounced in 50 years, the numbers are astounding--according to the Associated Press, "Lower-educated mothers are nearly four times more likely than college graduates to be denied paid maternity benefits."
At the middle and lower income levels, slower wage growth and the loss of middle wage occupations (machinists, managers and teachers!), have created a widening income gap. Those women having more children are on average, younger, less educated and typically Hispanic, and are more likely to fill low-wage jobs.
In this economic downturn, these are the jobs from which employers have typically slashed maternity leave, if they ever offered it at all.
The result is that first-time mothers are forced to make grim choices: either return to their jobs immediately after giving birth or sacrifice a steady pay check to take unpaid leave. Many mothers simply quit their jobs altogether to spend more time with their newborns.
"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.
In the past 2 years, the only jobs that have been steadily added have been mostly low wage positions with little or no benefits, according to the Employment Law Project. Many companies and businesses have seen growing profit margins, while employees have stepped up productivity for fear of losing employment.
And those jobs lost at the beginning of the recession have, accordingly, not been re-filled.
The gap between the higher-skilled employee who receives maternity leave and lesser educated sister who receives nothing, is becoming increasingly common, putting America up there with a handful of Third World countries.
This absurdity is overwhelmingly sad. That a young, low-skilled first time mother must make a choice to either leave her newborn to the care of others (often sub-par) to return to a job that barely puts food on the table, or quit her job altogether and forego any paycheck is cruel and sexist. And since this new population is typically Hispanic, it appears also to be racist!
What does this say about our opinions about motherhood? After decades of worker gains, why are women still fighting for universal benefits? How have major league businesses shown increasing profit, in some cases the highest in years, while jobs slashed 2 years ago have gone un-filled and employees have seen little increase in wages and benefits?
While some states such as California and New Jersey offer paid-leave programs, why has a family leave law failed time and time again to be passed in Congress?
And why have teachers become a part of the middle-income jobs lost to the recession?
I don't have answers for these questions, and the best I can do is to try to elect officials who will address these gross inequities. But a country that so disregards and marginalizes such a large population is not seeing the bigger picture....happy, secure mothers tend to raise happy, secure babies, who then become responsible, compassionate members of our society. And the easiest place to begin is with a national family leave law that at least promotes a strong and loving bond in the first several weeks of a newborn's life.
Honestly, I don't know what could be more essential to the health of a society.