One in four women return to work within two weeks of giving birth: That’s a statistic that one hears in discussions about the need for government action to increase workers access to paid leave.
People are horrified at the thought that new moms have to leave behind newborns barely young enough to focus their eyes, and drag themselves back to work when they are not even close to physically recovered from pregnancy and labor. But like so many eye-popping statistics, this one doesn’t seem to be an accurate picture of reality.
This one-in-four statistic appears to comes from a 2012 Department of Labor study of 2,852 employees who had taken family or medical leave in the last year, and a follow up analysis of the data done by Abt Associates. They report that there were 93 women among those employees who had taken time off from work to care for a new baby, and 12 percent of those interviewed (or about 11 women) said they took less than one week off and another 11 percent (or 10 women) took between one and two weeks. Rounding up, that became a short hand of 25 percent or one-and-four.
First, it’s important to note that the one-in-four finding for this study wasn’t for all women, but employed women. According to Pew Research, about two-thirds of women worked during pregnancy in 2015—another third were not employed. Similarly, the Census Bureau published a report that found that 56 percent of first time mothers were working full-time during their pregnancies and nearly 10 percent were working part time between 2006-2008. So if the one-in-four finding applies to working women, then it is really about one-in-seven of all women.
In addition to small sample size of just 93 women, the Department of Labor report describes the reason for this leave as women who have taken time off to care for and bond with a new baby, adopted or fostered child, or for a maternity related disability or illness. We don’t know how many of the 21 women who reported taking off less than two weeks were post-birth, versus caring for their own health problem during pregnancy or welcoming an older foster or adopted child. Even if it’s just a couple who took leave for reasons other than childbirth, that changes the percentage dramatically because it’s such a small sample.
Other studies also suggest that a smaller share of women return to work so soon after giving birth. For example, Pew found that 17 percent (or about one in six) of women who worked during pregnancy went back to work in less than six weeks (though that too had a very small sample size). The Census report doesn’t include the share of working women who took less than a month of leave on its table, but a graph suggests that about 10 percent of working first time moms had returned to work after one month of leave. Table 8 of the Census report shows that 58 percent were back at work after three months, 73 percent by six months, and 79 at the end of one year (and about twenty percent reported quitting their jobs entirely).
None of this data contradicts the central point of those who make the statement that one in four women go to work within two weeks of giving birth: Even if the real number is more likely one in twelve, or even one in fifteen, that still means there are a lot of moms out there who need help and support so that they can take care of themselves physically after giving birth and bond with and care for their newborns.
However, making the problem so widespread encourages people to race to support sweeping policy changes and not consider how those changes will impact people generally. If such a huge share of American women really were dragging themselves to work days after giving birth, then many people would support proposals for government to take dramatic action and impose a new payroll tax on all workers to fund partial pay replacement to help these women. They would worry less about how such a plan would impact everyone else. They wouldn’t consider how such a policy might make other workers—even a majority of workers—worse off, how it would mean that everyone, including those struggling to get by today, must pay a new tax and have less in each and every paycheck. They wouldn’t worry about how, once the government starts collecting taxes for and paying a government paid leave entitlement, many if not most employers will drop benefits that they are already offering–which means that workers who today receive fully paid leave benefits will instead have only partial wage replacement during leave, which means that some—and particularly those with lower incomes may no longer be able to afford to take that leave.
But we should consider all of these facts, and then focus on finding a solution to help the one in twelve new moms who really need it, but one that also doesn’t needless jeopardize or complicate the situation of the eleven-in-twelve new moms who are doing ok.
It’s understandable to want to dramatize a problem when you are urging action, but this lack of accuracy and the false narrative it creates can lead to poor policy decisions and create lasting harm for those that we all want to help.