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What paid family leave can do for the economy — and for women

White House economic adviser Betsey Stevenson talks to msnbc about the White House's paid leave push and whether there is work-life balance in the White House
Protesters gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court while the court hears arguments in the Young vs. UPS case Dec. 3, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)
Protesters gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court while the court hears arguments in the Young vs. UPS case Dec. 3, 2014 in Washington, DC.

When President Barack Obama lays out his support for paid sick and family leave during Tuesday’s State of the Union address and pushes the U.S. to start catching up with the rest of the world, he will do so bearing the advice of one particularly well-qualified economist. Not only is Betsey Stevenson a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, her academic research has often focused on how families, and particularly women, shape and are shaped by the economy. (She puts the new policy proposals and what’s worked elsewhere in context here.) msnbc caught up with Stevenson this week to discuss why paid leave is actually good for the economy — and whether there’s work-life balance in the White House. What follows are the highlights.

Why talk about paid leave now?

As you know, the president’s been working on this issue since the very first day of his presidency. As the economy has strengthened, it’s become even more imperative that we ensure that the benefits are being felt across the income distribution, and that the middle class is able to benefit from the improvements we’re seeing .... One of the things we’ve learned is that a very important thing for all families is being able to take time off from work when they have a personal and family need to be at home — whether they need to care for themselves because they’re too sick to come themselves, or care for a child, or get to know a new child who needs the intensive care that an infant needs. The president wants to make sure that the policies are addressing these concerns.

I noticed the administration hasn't been talking about this as a women's issue but a family issue. On the one hand, this is everyone's problem. On the other, women still do most of the care-work. What's your thinking on this?

Fifty percent of working parents say they’ve turned down jobs because it wouldn’t work for their family. Imagine making some of those constraints easier .... That decision seems like a very personal, kitchen-table one, but these individual personal decisions aggregate up and affect the economy overall.

The times are also clearly changing. Women’s role in the economy has changed and men’s role at home as changed .... We’ve had decades of people talking about having it all, but we really have an economy today where families are increasingly comprised of households where all parents are working. That big shift where all parents work in the majority of families means we need a different set of policies.

And more women are having kids on their own.

It all comes together to making sure that parents can take time off when they need it. We are behind where other countries are; many offer paid maternity leave and paid paternity leave. We are in a rare position as a developed country where people go to work, have regular jobs and don’t have access to take even a single day of paid leave. The president jokingly — or not jokingly ... noted at the Working Families Summit that many women can’t even take a paid day off to give birth.

What we find looking at the literature is that a lot of employers offer paid leave because they realize that paid leave is good [for] their bottom line. We are increasingly learning that companies that are better managed are more likely to have policies that support working families, and are more likely to have more productivity.

If you can make the most efficient decision in balancing work and family, the benefits aren’t just going to your family, they’re going to your job.

The president has called for seven days of paid sick leave, advancing federal employees six weeks of sick leave for parental leave, and supporting state and local initiatives. But he isn’t supporting a federal paid family leave act. Why not?  

His belief is that anything that would get done on the Hill would need to be done in a bipartisan way, and he’s willing to have conversations on the Hill and see what people will agree to. We’ve encouraged both sides to get together and have a debate. We can’t get ahead of a legislative solution. In the meantime, the president will continue to raise the issue, work with state and local government, continue to work with businesses.

If none of this is going to pass anyway under the Republican Congress, why can’t he back what he wants? At least based on what he’s said he wants?

Paid parental leave is something that the president strongly believes every American should have access to. And I think he believes, in the United States, this will happen at some point — that every American will be covered and we’re certainly working in that direction. But a federal solution will need to have bipartisan support. And having a debate with only some members of Congress and not all isn’t going to necessarily get us to the right place. You need to have a broader discussion and debate and I think that it’s premature to get ahead of what any solution would look like.

Will paid sick leave or paid maternity leave narrow the pay gap?

I think it will, for a couple of reasons. When you have family-friendly policies, you make it easier for people to stay in their jobs. Women who have to quit their job abruptly because they have to take time off to deal with a family crisis or take care of their kids see real negative impacts on their potential wages. I think it also helps families balance things better, which can be good for women. And I think in general it helps us move to a labor market that’s easier for women to succeed in. And whenever you make the labor market easier for women to succeed in, you’re going to narrow the pay gap.

This push was announced in a 6 p.m. call with reporters. How is work-life balance in the White House?

I almost made a joke about the six o’clock call myself. I like to get home to have dinner with my children. For people in the White House, this is a unique opportunity to serve the public and make sure we have the most effective public policies possible — and as an economist, to make sure that the economy is as successful as possible. People take this unique opportunity to heart and work very hard. Everybody here does understand that if you’re going to have the views of the American public represented broadly, you have to have people who have childcare responsibilities at home.

I have two small kids. I like to spend time with my kids. I feel that I get the support I need here in the White House to be able to both meet my kids’ needs and to be able to make a contribution while I’m here.