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Transatlantic Blog

The downside of paid family leave: Denmark

As Republicans unveil plans for compulsory paid family leave, they would be well instructed to see how such policies have hurt women’s employment prospects. In Europe, where paid leave is often compulsory, women face fewer prospects for advancement than in the United States.

Veronique de Rugy, a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, writes about the example of Denmark in The American Spectator.

De Rugy, who took part in the first transatlantic “Reclaiming the West” conference in London in December 2016, writes:

Denmark is often cited as an example of working-parent paradise. The government offers 52 weeks of paid leave and other generous family-friendly benefits. But even in paradise, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. A January 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research paper by economists Henrik Kleven, Camille Landais, and Jakob Egholt Sogaard looks at what happened to the earnings of 470,000 Danish women who gave birth for the first time between 1985 and 2003. These researchers found that having children was a career bummer for women.


For instance, they found that while men’s and women’s pay grew at roughly the same rates before they had kids, mothers saw their earnings rapidly reduced by nearly 30% on average, compared to the trajectory they were on before having kids. Men, on the other hand, saw their pay grow at the same rate before and after their children were born. Women may also become less likely to work, and if still employed, had earned lower wages and worked fewer hours.

Put simply, employers know that government-mandated paid leave means a drain on their finances and productivity. Since women are far more likely to take family leave than men, employers have an incentive to discriminate against women.

Sweden proposes to equalize outcomes by grounding down men’s incomes, forcing them to take paternity leave. The same scheme has been proposed in the Wall Street Journal.

The family is the fundamental unit of society, itself the first divinely ordained society in microcosm. St. John Chrysostom said a harmonious marriage produces “great benefits, both to families and to states. For there is nothing which so welds our life together as the love of man and wife.”

Since no two families are identical, each must tend to its own needs, as befits its peculiar circumstances and necessities. For some, that means relying more heavily on women’s income, which this policy artificially lowers. St. Chrysostom also warned, when the family suffers, “great evils are hence produced … to families and to states.”

(Photo credit: U.S. Air Force / Jerry Saslav. This photo has been cropped and modified for size.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.