We Need a Spouse Force, Not a Space Force
By Caitlyn Collins | December 18, 2019
On December 11th, 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill giving federal workers 12 weeks of paid parental leave—a progressive policy priority negotiated into a massive military spending package in exchange for authorizing the launch of “Space Force,” a sixth branch of the U.S. military.
These initiatives are an odd couple. They also represent a major statement on American values.
House Democrats and many House Republicans consider the landmark paid parental leave provision a monumental victory after decades of organizing and advocacy. Once the measure is signed into law, the country’s largest employer—the federal government—will offer 12 weeks of paid time off work for both women and men after the birth or adoption of a child, for the first time in history. Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter, campaigned for the passage of paid leave and said in a statement: “This new policy represents another incredible win for millions of hard-working American families courtesy of President Trump!”
House Republicans also laud the dramatic military expansion as a giant leap forward to maintain U.S. “supremacy in the skies,” an effort Donald Trump has championed as a cornerstone of his presidential legacy. Yet our military spending already far outstrips our investment in workers and families.
Military Spending Dwarfs Family Supports
The U.S. already leads the planet in military spending, accounting for 36% of global total. In 2018, the U.S. spent $649 billion, or 3.2% of GDP. The second country on the list, China, spent roughly one-third that amount: $250 billion. Compare that figure to the United States’ spending on family benefits in tax measures, services, and cash benefits in 2015 (latest figures available): 1.1% of GDP (roughly $200 billion). In other words, the U.S. spends about three times more on its military annually than it does on public supports to families.
The U.S. spends about three times more on its military annually than it does on public supports to families.
To put this in context, OECD countries spend on average 2.4% of GDP on family benefits. Leading the pack are France, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Hungry, and Denmark, who spend between 3.4% and 3.6% of GDP on public supports for families. The U.S. falls at the bottom of this group alongside Spain, Mexico, Greece, and Turkey (0.3%–1.3% of GDP).
Our national laws embody our national priorities. On the one hand, the U.S. is already a global leader in military spending. This new bill and the creation of Space Force only reinforce our “first place” position, with no material impact on the day-to-day lives of American families. On the other hand, the United States is a distinct outlier for the lack of public spending on family supports, spending far less than any other wealthy western country.
To put it plainly, in military spending, we win. In spending on family supports? We lose.
Millions of Families Lack Access to Paid Leave
The new bill is no doubt a triumph for the two million federal workers who stand to benefit. But the fact remains that the United States has 79 million families. Even after this bill passes, the vast majority of American families will remain without any job-protected, paid caregiving leave. The United States and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries on the planet with no statutory national policy for paid maternity leave.
It remains the case that women still complete the overwhelming majority of domestic work and caregiving in American families. So those who stand to benefit the most from more robust family supports, especially paid parental leave, are women. And those who suffer the most without it, again, are women and their children.
Those who stand to benefit the most from more robust family supports, especially paid parental leave, are women. And those who suffer the most without it, again, are women and their children.
My own research conducting interviews with working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States shows that U.S. women stand apart for their daily stress, exhaustion, and work-family conflict. Unfortunately, this is the logical outcome for women in the nation with the most family-hostile public policy of any western country.
In responding to the new bill, Democratic Representative Ro Khanna of California equated the inclusion of paid parental leave to “throwing us a bone” on a progressive policy priority alongside dramatic expansions in military spending and foreign intervention. (The first and only national law available to help Americans meet the dual demands of employment and caregiving, the Family and Medical Leave Act, offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to qualified workers, who account for only 60% of the U.S. workforce.)
Gains from paid parental leave are clear. It improves children’s and mothers’ wellbeing. It’s also beneficial for businesses, the labor market, and the national economy. When American mothers can access paid parental leave, they are more likely to return to their jobs after giving birth than those who do not. With American economic stability strongly linked to employment, mothers’ return to work is vital.
One Small Step for Working Families
This bill is a step in the right direction. But we need paid parental leave for all Americans. More specifically, we need paid family leave, which is necessary for literally everyone at some point or another in order to care for an ill family member or because of a personal illness.
The frontiers we need to conquer aren’t in outer space. They’re right here in our own homes and communities.
The frontiers we need to conquer aren’t in outer space. They’re right here in our own homes and communities, where we leave families with little to no supports for care.
We need a giant leap forward, not one small step for America’s working families.
Caitlyn Collins is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on gender inequality in the workplace and in family life. She is the author of Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving (2019, Princeton University Press).