Though too many politicians like to walk around pounding their chests about the superiority of all things American, the United States actually trails the industrialized world on many of the measures that matter most.
Unfortunately, a lot of those measures involve the way we treat women and children. As President Obama pointed out over the weekend with a measure of embarrassment, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation on the globe that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave for mothers of newborns.
His statement came as he was convening a day-long summit with businesses to push for paid maternity leave—something that only three states currently provide, California, Rhode Island and New Jersey.
“Only three countries in the world report that they don’t offer paid maternity leave — three — and the United States is one of them,” Obama said in his weekly radio address. “It’s time to change that. A few states have acted on their own to give workers paid family leave, but this should be available to everyone, because all Americans should be able to afford to care for a family member in need.”
Obama’s hope is that he can pressure Republicans to support some of his initiatives to help working families—in addition to publicizing Republican intransigence on these issues crucial to American women as the midterm elections approach.
“We’ve got, unfortunately I think, a faction of one party that says no to everything. And maybe the summit can highlight that this is not a partisan issue. This is a middle class issue. This is an American issue,” the president told CBS News.
The countries that mandate paid leave are the ones that actually care about women and children, rather than pay lip-service to some bogus, corrupt idea of “family values.”
After all, last year Save the Children’s 14th annual State of the World’s Mothers report revealed that the United States has the highest first-day infant death rate out of all the industrialized countries in the world. That is horrifying and should be totally unacceptable to us as a nation, but yet we allow it to continue. Why? Because this is a nation that doesn’t seem to give a flip about the lives of women and children.
The report states that about 11,300 newborns die within 24 hours of their birth in the U.S. each year, 50 percent more first-day deaths than all other industrialized countries combined. That sentence should be enough to make every American nauseated.
The report also ranked 168 countries according to where the best places to be a mother would be—using criteria like child mortality, maternal mortality, the economic status of women, educational achievement and political representation of women. Where did the good ol’ U-S of A come in?
Down at number 30. That was five spots lower than the 2012 report.
What does all this mean?
I felt it acutely when each of my children were born and we struggled to figure out how we would be able to afford adequate childcare because we both had to be sitting up in somebody’s office. Paid maternity leave relieves a huge burden on poor and middle-class families whose lives are filled with the daily stresses of balancing childcare with the need to put food on the table.
It’s one of these issues that creates an enormous divide between the rich and everyone else.
Even President Obama talked about it when he was interviewed on CBS News. Obama got personal, talking about being raised by his single mother and his grandmother.
“Both of them were strong, hard-working women. But they experienced the glass ceiling. They dealt with childcare crises,” he said.
He said the same was true of his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, when he was off campaigning or out of town.
“Now I’ve got two daughters. So I want to make sure that they’re able to balance family life and the workplace… or at least, their choices will be better than some of the choices that exist before,” he said. “The idea of this working summit is to really lift up conversations that every family all across America has every day.”
While acknowledging that progress has been made— women have entered careers that would not have been open to them a generation ago—Obama said women are still too often burdened with the task of child rearing and making less money than men.
“Discrimination is still taking place. And so part of what we want to do is to lift up the possibilities of changes in federal policy. But we don’t want to restrict it to just federal laws. We also want to show that companies on their own initiative will discover that it’s good business sense for them to take advantage of — or to offer workers — more flexibility on the job,” he said.
Not only is it good business sense, it’s also humane. It’s logical. It would be consistent with a country that cared about its families and children. But, to borrow a phrase from Earth, Wind & Fire, that’s the way of the [rest of the] world.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.