Policymaking Needs Storytelling: What This Means for Paid Leave

To galvanize the public to express their support and need for paid parental leave legislation, telling the stories of parents in the first six months of raising their child is fundamental. Katie Whitehouse, former Learning Sciences Exchange Fellow, shares her perspective on the lack of action toward policy change in the United States. Read more about her work on how to inform the public about the benefits of paid parental leave through storytelling.

Author: Katie Whitehouse

I’ve struggled to understand why the United States has yet to pass a paid parental leave law. It has been well documented and reported that other countries’ policies dramatically exceed the benefits of the unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act, which doesn’t even apply to all workers. The first six months of having a baby are universally challenging, and we know the bonding and time parents spend with their babies is developmentally important. Paid leave would also allow for adequate recovery time from birth. Still, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of March 2020, only 21 percent of workers have access to paid family leave through their employers.

Why is that?

Policymaking requires a combination of political and public will, built by the influence of constituent requests, research and data, grassroots advocacy, personal experiences, and economic considerations. Significant policy change, the kind that shifts culture, can take years or decades of intermittent progress before public will shifts enough for nationwide change. Maybe one of the reasons community support for paid parental leave is not more pronounced is the reality of the first six months of having a child is not a story that is built into our zeitgeist, despite the fact that so many people have experienced it.

I’m afraid though, if we don’t tell this story fully, if it isn’t well known, and if parents feel isolated in their experiences, we won’t generate the necessary public will to implement a paid parental leave policy for all workers. Public will motivates politicians, especially for significant policy change. We need a wide audience to hear this story, see themselves reflected in it, and understand the impact paid leave can have.

My group of LSX fellows, like each of the groups, included a scientist, a journalist, a member of the entertainment industry, and someone representing the policy sector. Our ideas coalesced around techniques to expose research-based ideas about young children and their families to broad audiences. We wanted the public to absorb the story of the first six months of raising a child, see the experiences affect characters and people to whom they may relate, and help them understand why paid leave is so critical for families and to the development of a child.

To continue reading Katie’s article, see “Policymaking Needs Storytelling: What This Means for Paid Leave” published on October 19th in the Education Policy section of New America.