Paid family leave leaves fewer families hungry

January 19, 2021

Paid family leave helps fight food insecurity. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Providing paid family leave reduces hunger, especially among children, according to a new study based on data from California.

The state’s 2004 introduction of a paid family leave policy reduced the percentage of households experiencing “very low food security” during the year following a birth by 1.98% to 2.29%, according to an upcoming paper in the Review of Economics of the Household

That corresponds to a 64% drop in comparison to the pre-reform mean. 

“When mothers are allowed to enjoy those benefits, there’s a reduction in very low food security right after birth,” said Otto Lenhart, an economist at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the author of the paper. 

The improvements were stronger among lower-income households, as well as families with more than one child and those with parents under the age of 30, according to Lenhart. 

“The biggest effects were for vulnerable members of the population,” the researcher said.

Under California’s paid family leave law, new parents are guaranteed 6 weeks of time off while being paid 60 to 70% of normal earnings. 

Just three other U.S. states — New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island — currently have paid family leave laws, while five additional states plan to phase in the policy soon. 

Nationwide, only 17% of workers have access to paid family leave. That number is concentrated among white-collar workers, leaving lower-income people at higher risk of falling into poverty when having children. 

“That’s still a very, very small share of women who have any benefits,” Lenhart said.

Lenhart added his study provided further evidence that paid family leave should be enacted nationwide. 

“Food insecurity levels are way too high for a developed country like the U.S.,” he said. “This is a matter that should be addressed very soon.” 

The U.S. is the only major developed country to not have nationwide paid family leave. Lenhart, who is originally from Hamburg, Germany, called the situation “ridiculous.” 

“I scratch my head when I see there are no [paid family leave] policies in place on the national level in the U.S.,” he said. “I’m originally from Germany. We have very generous paid family leave — some people might say it’s too generous.” 

While Lenhart’s is the first published study to examine the connection between paid family leave and food security, other research has explored connections between other social safety net programs and hunger.  

A 2020 paper by Winthrop University economist Nicholas Moellman found that Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act reduced the incidence of very low food insecurity by 2.7 to 4.6%, while a 2016 study by three economists from Williams College showed that adding $1,000 in safety net benefits reduced food insecurity by 1.1%. 

Lenhart, who earned his Ph.D. from Emory University, plans to examine policy effects on food insecurity in additional studies, including one paper he’s currently writing on the effects of 2009-2010 earned-income tax credit reforms on food security. He has found that the reform reduced food insecurity, he said. 

Most of Lenhart’s other research also explores the socioeconomic determinants of health. Another recent paper he wrote found that raising the minimum wage reduces teen births.  

Lenhart said that policymakers may not always consider the health effects of policies like paid family leave and raising the minimum wage, which are often framed in solely economic terms. He said the purpose of his work was to show that such policy changes can have wider-than-expected benefits across society, bolstering the case for reform. 

“I’m hoping these studies make an impact,” he said. “I’m quite hopeful that there will be some changes in the U.S. in the next few years.” 

The paper, titled “The effects of paid family leave on food insecurity — evidence from California,” is forthcoming in the Review of Economics of the Household. Otto Lenhart of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland was the paper’s sole author. 

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