Lessons from Europe: Let’s Do Right by Our Children

By:  Heather Gautney

Former president of South Africa and renowned anti-apartheid activist, Nelson Mandela, once said “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” What does the record of child care in the United States reveal about our soul, as a society?

Comparisons to Europe reveal major shortcomings in how we, as a nation, treat our children. 

Even before the Great Recession, U.S. families have struggled to afford adequate child care, especially in households where primary caregivers work outside the home. People in countries like France and Denmark may pay higher taxes, but they get much more for their money, especially in terms of family and child care. Generous social welfare policies enable European women to more easily strike the balance between home and work life, their children enjoy better health outcomes and higher levels of educational achievement, and far fewer of them are forced to live in poverty.

European social welfare provides crucial support during the first months of infancy, when a child is most vulnerable and in need of care and parental bonding. The United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) has set the following standards for maternity leave: (1) maternity leave should last for at least 14 weeks, but 18 weeks is preferred; (2) maternity leave should cover two thirds of a parent’s earnings, at minimum; and (3) family members should be covered by medical insurance. Nearly all European countries meet or exceed the ILO standard for weeks of maternity leave. All, except for Ireland and the UK, exceed the standard for wage replacement.

Many European countries also have parental leaves that allow either parent to stay home and care for the child after maternity benefits run out. For example, Finland allows 18 weeks maternity, and 26 weeks of parental leave at 70 percent salary, with additional parental leave at a flat rate until the child is three years old. To ensure gender equality, some countries have a “father quota” – leave time set exclusively for fathers, which can last as long as three months in Iceland. In Germany, couples receive a parental allowance for 2 to 12 months, and single parents can receive a parental allowance as income replacement for up to 14 months. The parental allowance replaces some 67 percent of the parents’ income; for those living on a low income, the rate increases to 100 percent. 

The U.S., by contrast, does not meet any of the ILO standards. A recent study by McGill University found that we are one of four countries (out of 173 studied) that does not provide paid maternity leave. The other three are Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland. Instead, we allow only 12 weeks unpaid leave, but only for companies that employ 50 or more employees (and must meet other requirements as well). As a result, only 60 percent of American workers are eligible for maternity leave, and only a quarter of American employers give fully paid leaves of absence to give birth, usually fewer than 14 weeks.

European countries also support care in the very early stages of child development. The French government sponsors one of the most generous programs, offering eight hours daily of free child care for 2- to 6-year olds. Child care centers exist for children under 2-years old, and national and local governments pay about 75 percent of the cost. In addition to child care facilities, family allowances exist in all European countries to subsidize families with children through cash payments. In Finland, up to 85 percent of the cost of raising a child is subsidized this way. European family allowances are worth about 10% of average wages per child. Their impact is greatest for large and low-income families.

The United States has no national child care program, and we do not offer family assistance. We rely instead on private sources, some targeted state-subsidized programs, and tax breaks.

Finally, European governments heavily support and subsidize preschool. Among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, 84 percent of kids in early childhood education attend publicly funded programs, while in the U.S., only 55 percent do. The U.S ranks #28 in the OECD in the percentage of 4-year-olds in early childhood education. The typical starting age for early education in Europe is 3 years old, as opposed to 4 in the U.S., and education-only programs in Europe are usually delivered by a qualified teacher with a formal curriculum.

Perhaps more disturbing, the rate of U.S. children who lack more than four of eight key educational possessions – a desk to study, a quiet place to work, a computer for schoolwork, educational software, an internet connection, a calculator, a dictionary, and school textbooks – is very poor, the fifth worst in the OECD. In countries like Finland, all students receive a free meal daily, as well as health care, transportation, learning materials, and counseling. 

The next time your hear someone argue that “big government” programs drain the economy, and are inefficient and ineffective – or, that European socialism promotes laziness – remind them that infant mortality in the U.S. is the fourth worst among OECD countries (just after Mexico, Turkey, and the Slovak Republic); that we have the 5th worst rates of child mortality and the sixth worst rates of low birth weight. Remind them that Europeans enjoy universal health benefits, while over 50 million of our citizens remain uninsured and thus lack access to care—including pregnant women, babies, and young children. And remind them that these are not just numbers -- they’re a serious wake-up call to do right by our children. 

Dr. Heather Gautney, ASA/AAAS is a congressional fellow in the office of Sen. Bernie Sanders and an assistant professor at Fordham University.