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The Two Problems With Obama's Maternity Leave Shout-out

Tonight President Obama briefly brought up the need for “paid maternity leave,” a move that wasn’t a surprise to anyone who saw his announcement last Thursday that federal employees would receive paid parental leave. “There is a notable gap in federal benefits, and that is paid parental leave,” the press release read. “This can hamper federal agencies’ ability to recruit talented young people to join public service.”

It makes sense that a job with paid parental leave would likely be more attractive to a person about to start a family, than a similar job without paid parental leave. Granting federal employees paid parental leave is great thing for the federal government, for federal employees themselves, and for their families. But it stops there. Until Congress passes a bill that grants paid parental leave to all American workers, Obama’s announcement last week just perpetuates a situation in which paid leave is decided at the mercy of the employer. And according to a December 2014 report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), “only 12 percent of workers in the United States have access to paid family leave through their employers.” As President Obama pointed out tonight, “we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers.”

But there are two problems with what President Obama said about paid parental leave in his State of the Union: First, he called it “maternity leave.” And, second, that statement quoted above is all he said.

In the press release from last week, “parental leave” was the chosen phrase. Critically, it was gender-neutral. As President Obama said tonight, "it’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women’s issue.” And as the CAP report points out, parental leave isn’t a women’s issue either, “men increasingly want to be caregivers.” It also clarifies, “As family demographics shift, parents of young children are not the only types of workers with significant caregiving responsibilities.” Specifically, the report is referring to the realities of “care for elders” and “same-sex families,” where maternity leave would not apply even if it were guaranteed.

And President Obama should have said more. He could have brought up that men do increasingly want to be caregivers, that paid parental leave should be given equally to men and women, that paid parental leave could have important economic benefits, like reducing employee turn over when men and women seek to change jobs to have children, that paid parental leave isn’t something that only elite workers have earned.

President Obama’s announcement last week may have been a wonderful surprise to federal workers and their families, and even to Americans everywhere eager to see universal paid parental leave become a reality. But the announcement set high expectations for what else President Obama could have said on the topic tonight. A one-liner about “maternity leave,” left us all hanging.