''Time Out'' for New Mothers

Some Issues for Maternity-Leave Policy

by Jacob Alex Klerman, Arleen Leibowitz

Research Brief

The increasing number of new mothers in the labor force accounts for much of the growth in female employment over the last 30 years. The largest increases during the 1960s and 1970s were among mothers with pre-school children--in the 1980s, among mothers with infants. The fact that women now constitute so much of the nation's labor force has given rise to various policy concerns. One is how women can take time off to give birth and nurture their infants without losing their jobs--and thus their own and their employers' investment in their training and experience. Another is the possible health and behavioral effects on children whose mothers return to work very soon after childbirth.

These concerns influenced Congress to pass the Family Leave Act of 1993, guaranteeing new mothers up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave and the right to return to their old jobs at the end of the leave. Prior to that time, only 2 percent of medium- and large-size firms offered formal maternity leave. But how much is the act (and similar laws passed by states) likely to increase women's employment or extend the time after childbirth that they stay home and provide most of their infants' care?

Jacob Klerman and Arleen Leibowitz have examined issues of mothers' employment and child care in a series of studies. Their recent work suggests that the legislation is actually following rather than leading social change: Many women and employers had already worked out informal leave arrangements without waiting for legislated maternity-leave policies to be adopted. The results of this work suggest a different way of viewing the policy issues and the likely effects of maternity-leave laws.

How Has New Mothers' Employment Changed over Time?

Klerman and Leibowitz used time-series data for 1973 to 1988 from the June Current Population Surveys (CPS) to explore mothers' work and employment following childbirth. They found that it was important to look at mothers' employment month by month in the first year of the child's life because that is where the greatest changes have taken place. As the figure makes clear, by the later 1980s, new mothers' employment over the first year after childbirth was relatively flat. Roughly 40 percent of new mothers were employed throughout the year, but their situation in the first three months after childbirth was very different than in the next nine months: At one month, only a quarter of "employed" women were actually "at work." The rest were on paid or unpaid leave. However, almost all employed mothers were actually at work by the fourth month after childbirth.

This represents a major change from the early 1970s, when mothers' employment rose from 15 percent during their infants' first month to 30 percent by month 12. This sharp rise reflects the fact that most of the new mothers had quit their jobs to have children and returned to work by finding new employment over the course of the first year. The changing pattern of continuous employment accounts for much of the significant increase in new mothers' overall employment between the late 1970s and late 1980s.

Why Are More New Mothers Working Now?

These results indicate that maternity leave became more common in the 1980s. However, they do not explain the growth in new mothers' employment per se. In another study, Klerman and Leibowitz sought the explanations, using individual-level data from the CPS on married mothers--whose employment has grown much more dramatically than single mothers' employment.

They found that demographic variables have changed in ways that would "predict" the rise in mothers' employment: "Smaller numbers of children promote employment, and average family sizes declined; women with more schooling are more likely to hold a job, and mothers' average education rose; older mothers are more likely to work, and the average age of new mothers increased; mothers with older husbands are more likely to work, and new married fathers were older on average in 1990 than in 1971."

In fact, while the employment of married mothers with children under three years old rose 32.6 percentage points, these demographic variables account for only about one-fifth of the change. However, economic variables also changed in ways that would predict a rise in women's employment, and they explain much more of the increase: The higher the potential earnings of women, the more likely they are to work; and the higher husbands' earnings, the less likely women are to work. Over the period in question, women's earnings increased, while earnings for young men fell. Even if the demographic characteristics of women had not changed as described above, these economic trends would have caused more women to work. "Thus married women's increasing opportunities in the labor market (and their husbands' worsening prospects) account for much of the dramatic growth in married mothers' labor supply."

What Are the Implications for Policy?

The results of these studies have implications for how policymakers should think about work among new mothers and what types of policy interventions are likely to affect behavior. The employment patterns of new mothers have changed in startling ways. Federal and state maternity-leave laws were passed in reaction to these changes, and further research is needed on the actual effects of that legislation. However, given their findings, Klerman and Leibowitz conclude that the effects may be quite limited, for several reasons:

First, the federal legislation applied only to full-time workers with considerable tenure in large firms--less than half of all new mothers.

Second, the legislation merely codified what has become common practice: By the late 1980s, informal leave arrangements with employers already gave about half of new mothers "time out" with their children--without having to quit their jobs.

Third, it seems unlikely that guaranteeing up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave will greatly affect work patterns. The loss of mothers' income during that period is likely to be at least as important in determining how much time out women take.

Finally, much of the change in mothers' employment reflects changes in who is having children and when. However, more of the change results from trends in the U.S. economy, which are converging to make women work more. Government policy is not likely to change those trends. Thus, if there is strong public concern that women should stay home with their infants longer than the now-common month or two, policy will have to address that concern directly.

Given the financial and economic considerations that affect mothers' working patterns, women are unlikely to take long maternity leaves unless the leaves are paid. In Western Europe, maternity leave is a special welfare benefit funded by taxes. Whether such an investment is worthwhile for the United States depends critically on better understanding than we now have of the behavioral and health effects of mother's work soon after a child is born.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

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