Bloomberg’s Breastfeeding Initiative: Let’s Start With Paid Parental Leave….
The key difference between Europe and the United States when it comes to breastfeeding are legal protections of paid parental leave, paid sick leave, and, in some cases allowances for longer lunch hours to breastfeed.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has again been the focus of criticism for promoting a “nanny state,” this time for his initiative to promote breastfeeding by preventing hospitals from displaying and promoting breast milk substitutes. The many voices in the outpouring of criticism that followed the unveiling of Bloomberg’s new plan are right about one thing: most women’s decision to breastfeed is not determined by where and whether hospitals display breast milk substitutes on their shelves. But most criticism has focused on a somewhat illusionary notion: choice.
And by this I don’t mean that women in the United States have no choice in the matter: obviously, we do.
What I mean is that choices, everywhere, are determined by our circumstances. When a substantially larger percentage of women in Western European countries, as compared to the United States, consistently choose to breastfeed and to continue to breastfeed past 3 months, logic has it that circumstances in those countries facilitate the healthier choice (which, undisputedly, in most cases is continued and exclusive breastfeeding for at least 6 months).
And what are those circumstances?
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Here’s a hint: it’s not that European countries hide breast milk substitutes on the back shelves far away from maternity wards. Sure, many hospitals in Europe aggressively discourage bottle-feeding, but breast milk substitutes are freely available and the shaming of non-breastfeeding mothers—which many critics of Bloomberg’s initiative rightly point to as counterproductive—is no more or less strong than in the United States.
The fact that more women breastfeed in Europe is also not an indication of European women lagging behind their American sisters in terms of emancipation and modern living. If true, this might make European women more likely to live traditional homemaker lives with time to breastfeed. Women in Europe face different, not more, obstacles to equality than women in the United States. The pay gap between men and women has long been less pronounced in Europe than in the United States, whereas legal protections against sexual harassment are stronger in the United States than in most European countries.
Many of those who criticize Bloomberg’s initiative refer to the fact that some women just can’t breastfeed, and they shouldn’t be made to think they are lesser or worse mothers because of it. And, yes, that is obviously an issue. Some women just do not produce milk, regardless of how long and how well they teach their newborns to suckle. But it would be facile (and, frankly, naïve) to conclude from the difference in breastfeeding statistics that substantially fewer women living in the United States are physically able to breastfeed. There is, after all, nothing in the water (one would hope) that so systematically impairs our bodily functions.
There is, however, something in our laws. The key difference between Europe and the United States when it comes to breastfeeding are legal protections of paid parental leave, paid sick leave, and, in some cases allowances for longer lunch hours to breastfeed.
Consider this: in Denmark, where I gave birth and started breastfeeding my daughter, women have a right to at least 46 weeks paid leave after birth (unless your union got you a better deal). After living seven months in Peru (where women are entitled by law to 90 days paid leave to be taken before or after birth, and an additional one-hour break for breastfeeding while at work until the new baby is six months old), I moved to the United States for a full-time job. My daughter was then eight months old and had until then been exclusively breastfed.
My conditions were comparatively good. I had an office with a lock on the door, and I could organize my meetings and other work around the regular pumping I needed to do to maintain the flow of milk. Crucially, there was a fridge where I could store the pumped milk to later bring home to my daughter. Even so, my milk production, which had until then been copious, all but seized in a few months, largely due to the difficulties in keeping a rigorously regular pumping (and water intake) schedule and—who am I kidding—the physical discomfort the pumping caused. And I am not alone. Many women find it hard to keep up a steady breast milk supply when returning to work after time at home.
So imagine what might happen to a new mother without such discretionary protection, and with only the narrow extended (and unpaid) sick leave afforded by the law. She’d be back to work after 12 weeks (or less) of unpaid leave, often have no place to pump, no allowance for time to pump, and no place to store the milk.
Crucially, the oddly myopic view of what’s at stake in the breastfeeding debate that was displayed in last week’s criticism of Bloomberg’s initiative suggests that new mothers enjoy little understanding from co-workers, employers, or even those claiming to represent women’s best interests.
At best, we are encouraged to feel empowered in rejecting breastfeeding and Mayor Bloomberg’s blame politics. At worst, we are told bottle-feeding is the price we pay for equality. The former is a limited read of reality, while the latter is just plain wrong. There are more effective ways than blame and coercion to encourage healthy breastfeeding for women who want to lactate and are physically able to do so, starting with paid parental leave.
“This law would have been especially burdensome to communities of color and people with low income who already often have the least access to care—this law would have made a bad situation worse,” said Iris E. Harvey, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio.
Judge Michael R. Barrett of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Ohio on Friday ruled in Planned Parenthood’s favor, granting a permanent injunction on an anti-choice state law.
The court ruling will keep Richard Hodges, the Ohio Department of Health director, from enforcing HB 294.
The 2015 law, sponsored by Rep. Bill Patmon (D-Cleveland) and Rep. Margaret Conditt (R-Butler County), would have redirected $1.3 million in state and federal taxpayer funds from Planned Parenthood’s 28 clinics in Ohio.
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The law would have required the state department to keep federal funds and materials that the health department receives from being distributed to entities that perform or promote non-therapeutic abortions, or maintain affiliation with any entity that does.
Funding that would’ve been cut off from the state health department went to the Violence Against Women and Breast and Cervical Cancer Mortality Prevention acts, the Infertility Prevention Project, Minority HIV/AIDS and Infant Mortality Reduction initiatives, and the Personal Responsibility Education Program.
Planned Parenthood in a lawsuit argued that the Republican legislation violated the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Barrett had temporarily blocked the law after Planned Parenthood affiliates filed the lawsuit and requested a preliminary injunction. The judge had issued an opinion contending that some legislators passed the law to make it difficult for people to access abortion care, as Rewire reported.
Iris E. Harvey, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio, praised the judge’s temporary order.
“This law would have been especially burdensome to communities of color and people with low income who already often have the least access to care—this law would have made a bad situation worse,” Harvey said in a statement.
Kellie Copeland, NARAL Pro Choice Ohio’s executive director, said in a statement that the Ohio legislature passed the anti-choice measure in an effort to appeal to conservative voters in early primary states during Kasich’s presidential campaign.
Copeland said that while the legislation made no effort to reduce the number of abortions performed, “it actively blocked critical health care for low-income women and families.”
Planned Parenthood said those services included 70,000 free STD screenings, thousands of HIV tests for at-risk community residents, and the largest infant mortality prevention program in the state.
In the 23-page court order and opinion, Barrett, an appointee of President George W. Bush, acknowledged that the law would have deterred “patients from seeking these potentially life-saving services.”
Planned Parenthood noted that the recent ruling in Ohio makes it among the ten states where courts have blocked anti-choice laws following June’s landmark Whole Woman’s Health v. HellerstedtU.S. Supreme Court ruling.
“A simple tax deduction is not going to deal with the larger affordability problem in child care for low- and moderate-income individuals," Hunter Blair, a tax and budget analyst at the Economic Policy Institute told Rewire.
In a recent speech, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump suggested he now supports policies to made child care more affordable, a policy position more regularly associated with the Democratic Party. The costs of child care, which have almost doubled in the last 25 years, are a growing burden on low- and middle-income families, and quality options are often scarce.
“No one will gain more from these proposals than low- and middle-income Americans,” claimed Trump in a speech outlining his economic platform before the Detroit Economic Club on Monday. He continued, “My plan will also help reduce the cost of childcare by allowing parents to fully deduct the average cost of childcare spending from their taxes.” But economic experts question whether Trump’s proposed solution would truly help alleviate the financial burdens faced by low- and middle–income earners.
Details of most of Trump’s plan are still unclear, but seemingly rest on addressing child care costs by allowing families to make a tax deduction based on the “average cost” of care. He failed to clarify further how this might work, simply asserting that his proposal would “reduce cost in child care” and offer “much-needed relief to American families,” vowingto tell the public more with time. “I will unveil my plan on this in the coming weeks that I have been working on with my daughter Ivanka … and an incredible team of experts,” promised Trump.
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An adviser to the Trump campaign noted during an interview with the Associated Press Monday that the candidate had yet to nail down the details of his proposal, such as what the income caps would be, but said that the deductions would only amount to the average cost of child care in the state a taxpayer resided in:
Stephen Moore, a conservative economist advising Trump, said the candidate is still working out specifics and hasn’t yet settled on the details of the plan. But he said households reporting between $30,000 and $100,000, or perhaps $150,000 a year in income, would qualify for the deduction.
“I don’t think that Britney Spears needs a child care credit,” Moore said. “What we want to do is to help financially stressed middle-class families have some relief from child-care expenses.”
The deduction would also likely apply to expensive care like live-in nannies. But exemptions would be limited to the average cost of child care in a taxpayer’s state, so parents wouldn’t be able to claim the full cost of such a high-price child care option.
Experts immediately pointed outthat while the details of Trump’s plan are sparse, his promise to make average child care costs fully tax deductible wouldn’t do much for the people who need access to affordable child care most.
Trump’s plan “would actually be pretty poorly targeted for middle-class and low-income families,” Hunter Blair, a tax and budget analyst at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), told Rewire on Monday.
That’s because his tax breaks would presumably not benefit those who don’t make enough money to owe the federal government income taxes—about 44 percent of households, according to Blair. “They won’t get any benefit from this.”
As the Associated Press further explained, for those who don’t owe taxes to the government, “No matter how much they reduce their income for tax purposes by deducting expenses, they still owe nothing.”
Many people still may not benefit from such a deduction because they file standard instead of itemized deductions—meaning they accept a fixed amount instead of listing out each qualifying deduction. “Most [lower-income households] don’t choose to file a tax return with itemized deductions,” Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), told Rewire Tuesday. That means the deduction proposed by Trump “favors higher income families because it’s related to your tax bracket, so the higher your tax bracket the more you benefit from [it],” added Blank.
A 2014 analysis conducted by the Congressional Research Service confirms this. According to its study, just 32 percent of tax filers itemized their deductions instead of claiming the standard deduction in 2011. While 94 to 98 percent of those with incomes above $200,000 chose to itemize their deductions, just 6 percent of tax filers with an adjusted gross income below $20,000 per year did so.
“Trump’s plan is also not really a solution that deals with the problem,” said Blair. “A simple tax deduction is not going to deal with the larger affordability problem in child care for low- and moderate-income individuals.”
Those costs are increasingly an issue for many in the United States. A report released last year by Child Care Aware® of America, which advocates for “high quality, affordable child care,” found that child care for an infant can cost up to an average $17,062 annually, while care for a 4-year-old can cost up to an average of $12,781.
“The cost of child care is especially difficult for families living at or below the federal poverty level,” the organization explained ina press release announcing those findings. “For these families, full-time, center-based care for an infant ranges from 24 percent of family income in Mississippi, to 85 percent of family income in Massachusetts. For single parents the costs can be overwhelming—in every state annual costs of center-based infant care averaged over 40 percent of the state median income for single mothers.”
“Child care now costs more than college in most states in our nation, and it is an actual true national emergency,” Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, CEO and executive director of MomsRising, told Rewire in a Tuesday interview. “Donald Trump’s new proposed child care tax deduction plan falls far short of a solution because it’s great for the wealthy but it doesn’t fix the child care crisis for the majority of parents in America.”
Rowe-Finkbeiner, whose organization advocates for family economic security, said that in addition to the tax deduction being inaccessible to those who do not itemize their taxes and those with low incomes who may not pay federal income taxes, Trump’s proposal could also force those least able to afford it “to pay up-front child care costs beyond their family budget.”
“We have a crisis … and Donald Trump’s proposal doesn’t improve access, doesn’t improve quality, doesn’t lift child care workers, and only improves affordability for the wealthy,” she continued.
Trump’s campaign, however, further claimed in a statement to CNN Tuesday that “the plan also allows parents to exclude child care expenses from half of their payroll taxes—increasing their paycheck income each week.”
“The working poor do face payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, so a payroll tax break could help them out,” reported CNN. “But experts say it would be hard to administer.”
Meanwhile,Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton released her own child care agenda in May, promising to use the federal government to cap child care costs at 10 percent of a family’s income.
A cap like this, Blank said, “would provide more help to low- and middle-income families.” She continued, “For example, if you had a family with two children earning $70,000, if you capped child care at 10 percent they could probably save … $10,000 a year.”
Clinton’s plan includes a promise to implement a program to address the low wages many who work in the child care industry face, which she calls the “Respect And Increased Salaries for Early Childhood Educators” program, or the RAISE Initiative. The program would raise pay and provide training for child-care workers.
Such policies could make a major difference to child-care workers—the overwhelming majority of which are women and workers of color—who often make poverty-level wages. A 2015 study by the EPI found that the median wage for these workers is just $10.31 an hour, and few receive employer benefits. Those poor conditions make it difficult to attract and retain workers, and improve the quality of care for children around the country.
Addressing the low wages of workers in the field may be expensive, but according to Rowe-Finkbeiner, it is an investment worth making. “Real investments in child care bring for an average child an eight-to-one return on investment,” she explained. “And that’s because when we invest in quality access and affordability, but particularly a focus on quality … which means paying child-care workers fairly and giving child-care workers professional development opportunities …. When that happens, then we have lower later grade repetition, we have less future interactions with the criminal justice system, and we also have a lower need for government programs in the future for those children and families.
Affordable child care has also been a component of other aspects of Clinton’s campaign platform. The “Military Families Agenda,” for example, released by the Clinton campaign in June to support military personnel and their families, also included a child care component. The former secretary of state’s plan proposed offering these services “both on- and off-base, including options for drop-in services, part-time child care, and the provision of extended-hours care, especially at Child Development Centers, while streamlining the process for re-registering children following a permanent change of station (PCS).”
“Service members should be able to focus on critical jobs without worrying about the availability and cost of childcare,” said Clinton’s proposal.
Though it may be tempting to laud the simple fact that both major party candidates have proposed a child care plan at all, to Rowe-Finkbeiner, having both nominees take up the cause is a “no-brainer.”
“Any candidate who wants to win needs to take up family economic security policies, including child care,” she said. “Democrats and Republicans alike know that there is a child care crisis in America. Having a baby right now costs over $200,000 to raise from zero to age 18, not including college …. Parents of all political persuasions are talking about this.”
Coming up with the right way to address those issues, however, may take some work.
“We need a bold plan because child care is so important, because it helps families work, and it helps them support their children,” the NWLC’s Blank said. “We don’t have a safety net for families to fall back on anymore. It’s really critical to help families earn the income their children need and child care gives children a strong start.” She pointed to the need for programs that offer families aid “on a regular basis, not at the end of the year, because families don’t have the extra cash to pay for child care during the year,” as well as updates to the current child care tax credits offered by the government.
“There is absolutely a solution, but the comprehensive package needs to look at making sure that children have high-quality child care and early education, and that there’s also access to that high-quality care,” Rowe-Finkbeiner told Rewire.
“It’s a complicated problem, but it’s not out of our grasp to fix,” she said. “It’s going to take an investment in order to make sure that our littlest learners can thrive and that parents can go to work.”