Top economist says fathers must take parental leave, for the good of the country

Top economist says fathers must take parental leave, for the good of the country

Forcing new fathers to stay home longer with their new baby helps dads bond, babies develop and mothers recover, as well as reducing workplace inequality, says Manuel Trajtenberg

Illustrative: Father holding his baby girl at home. (Wavebreakmedia; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: Father holding his baby girl at home. (Wavebreakmedia; iStock by Getty Images)

A new proposal by one of Israel’s most prominent economists seeks to improve the bond between new fathers and their newborns, help mothers recover from the birth, improve gender equality in the workplace and give a boost to the national economy by helping young families find their footing faster after the financial blow of a new baby’s arrival.

And it plans to do all that by requiring new Israeli fathers to take two weeks of paid paternity leave, and incentivizing them to take even more.

Current law allows fathers just one week of paid paternity leave immediately after a child’s birth, and the vast majority of new fathers take it. But the law limits the next five weeks of paid leave to the mother. Fathers can then return to paternity leave, divvying up the mother’s remaining nine weeks.

That five-week gap after the first week off sends fathers back to work, where they largely stay. Official figures show that very few working fathers — about one percent — go back on paternity leave after the sixth week.

“This hurts the babies, the mothers, and seriously hampers the mothers’ careers,” Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, a former member of Knesset and government cost-of-living czar, told Channel 12 in a report on his new proposal for families with two working parents on Wednesday.

Professor Manuel Trajtenberg speaks at a conference on Israeli society at Tel Aviv University, January 18, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Trajtenberg’s plan (Hebrew PDF), developed with the Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy at the prestigious Technion-Israel Institute of Technology where he teaches, would dramatically extend the current 15-week maternity leave to up to 24 weeks and require fathers to take at least two of those weeks themselves.

The plan acknowledges that it is bucking social norms that place the onus for child-rearing on the mother. It plans to encourage fathers to take advantage of the new rules by making some of the mother’s leave contingent on the father actually using his allotted time off. Of the 24 weeks, five can be used only by the father — and are meant to be used simultaneously with the mother, allowing both parents to be home together with the baby in the first weeks. To encourage the father to take more than the two-week mandatory leave, the plan stipulates that fully two weeks of paid leave usable by the mother only become available when the father hits 3.5 weeks at home.

“This is already happening in European states, where the men take part in this critical stage of raising the kids,” Trajtenberg said.

That participation leads to “bonding with these children, which is good for everyone, including for the economy. The main point is to do more for the children by bringing the fathers into this framework.”

The social and economic costs of a father’s return to work soon after the birth are hard to quantify precisely, but experts say they may be profound.

Mothers left alone in the first weeks are more prone to postpartum depression, which makes it harder for them to care for and engage with their new baby just as the baby’s brain is beginning to form its most basic responses to its surroundings. Researchers have shown that the period shortly after the birth is also vital for establishing long-term emotional bonds between father and baby, a lost opportunity for a father who returns to work too quickly that can have knock-on effects down the road.

A father wearing his baby while learning (photo credit: Gershon Elinson/Flash 90)
Illustrative: A father carrying his baby while engaged in religious studies. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

“When children grow with the meaningful involvement of a father, those children show significantly higher and better educational capabilities and social and leadership skills,” according to Dr. Hava Gadasi of the Goshen advocacy group.

The greater stress for the mother of being left alone after the physically draining experiences of pregnancy and childbirth are also believed to extend the physical and emotional recovery periods. Almost half of Israeli mothers of newborns don’t return to work when their paid maternity leave ends at 15 weeks, a fact that imposes further strain on the growing family’s financial situation.

Beyond the harm to the children, the mothers and the fathers, the current system is bad for the country, say experts. The huge gap in the childcare burden helps drive inequality in work opportunities and income between men and women, and leads to long-term reduction in productivity for working women.

In terms of immediate costs, Trajtenberg’s proposal would set the country back some NIS 1.5 billion ($430 million) each year, the report says.

The researchers propose paying for it by reducing three government benefits given to parents: the childbirth grant after the first child, expensive child stipends for teenagers aged 15 to 17, and the hospitalization grant paid by the National Insurance Institute to cover the first couple of days of hospitalization after healthy births.

Illustrative: A mother holds a baby, with a bottle of breast milk at foreground. (Pilin_Petunyia/iStock by Getty images)

The removal of child subsidies for children over 15 would free up NIS 750 million ($215 million), the report says, arguing the move would redirect the funds from helping older parents at a time when they generally earn more and spend less on children to an earlier period in their lives when the money is tighter and the expenses higher.

The plan suggests raising the childbirth grant upon the birth of the first child from the current NIS 1,778 ($509) to NIS 2,000 ($574), but canceling the grants for the second birth, which come to NIS 800 ($229), and those for the third and after, which come to just NIS 533 ($152) each. That shift would free up another NIS 51 million.

The NII currently hands hospitals NIS 14,146 ($4,050) for each healthy birth, a figure meant to cover up to 4.6 days in hospital, and which is far more than the actual cost of the hospital’s care for an Israeli mother and baby, who on average leave the hospital just 2.7 days after the birth. A 20% reduction of that grant to hospitals would free up the remaining NIS 621 million ($178 million), the plan estimates.

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