Parenthood is an utterly unique experience, full of firsts: your baby’s first coo, first smile, first grasp of your hand. I’ve been lucky enough to experience those firsts four times over and know that this awesome privilege includes a solemn responsibility: to raise healthy, conscious and compassionate children who will become the next generation of leaders, thinkers and parents themselves.
But no matter how much we praise parenthood in our rhetoric, our current public policies — particularly those surrounding parental leave — haven’t kept up with the changing face of American families.
This isn’t a theoretical problem. As we reported in this year’s Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From the Brink, 71 percent of American children live in families where every parent is employed. And women are now the primary or co-breadwinner in about two thirds of U.S. families.
Still, as highlighted in the Shriver Report, only about 12 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave to care for a new child or a sick family member. If working parents take unpaid time off to bond with their new family member, they risk their livelihoods.
We’re thankful that in a few places around the country, new parents are getting some of the help they need. This month California is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its first-in-the-nation Paid Family Leave (PFL) program, which has helped more than 1.5 million parents take paid time away from work to bond with a newborn or adopted child.
Since the law’s passage, research has confirmed that paid family leave offers real and lasting benefits both to families and to employers. Mothers and fathers are getting increased bonding time with newborns. Breastfeeding rates have almost doubled for mothers who take leave. There are lower rates of postpartum depression, and health outcomes among children have improved. Perhaps most important, as we pointed out in the Shriver Report, programs such as California’s PFL law can boost employment and family income by allowing parents to go back to work at their old jobs after taking family leave. In fact, an overwhelming majority of employers report that providing family leave has a neutral or even positive impact on productivity and their bottom line.
Despite this track record, too few parents are taking advantage of California’s PFL program, and those parents who may need it most are least likely to sign up.
For example, in any given year, more than half a million children are born in California, yet a parent files for paid leave for only 36 percent of those births. While there may be many reasons that families choose not take paid family leave, researchers suggest that a major barrier is limited knowledge of the program itself.
In fact, surveys have confirmed that less than half of Californians — only 43 percent — even know about the state’s PFL program. This is particularly true in my home county of Los Angeles, where more than a quarter of all births in the state occur each year — and it’s especially true among low-income and Hispanic workers.
This isn’t a new problem. Lifting up the one in three Americans living on or over the brink of poverty today requires that Americans know about and understand how to sign up for the very programs designed to put them on a path to a more secure future.
When I was California’s first lady, I quickly learned that there was surprisingly low public awareness of benefit programs overall. That is why I founded WE Connect, a public-private partnership to make California families aware of the range of public services available to them. To date, WE Connect has connected 20 million Californians with programs promoting healthier and more financially independent lives.
That’s why I’m excited that the new state budget that Gov. Jerry Brown signed just last month includes funding to expand awareness about the PFL program — and advocates like Next Generation and the California Work & Family Coalition are building the foundation for a comprehensive statewide outreach and education campaign around California’s PFL law.
By getting the word out, it’s possible that hundreds of thousands of new families will take the paid leave available to them after the birth of a new baby. Doing so will allow parents to be present for those precious first moments without having to worry about making a huge dent in their family finances or even losing their jobs. By taking steps now to build awareness around this program, we can make an immediate impact on the lives of millions of families. That’s good for families, and it’s good for our state.
This post was originally published on The Huffington Post.