Sep. 15 2015

Why Maternity Leave Matters and Other Lessons in Childhood Poverty

South Korean Officials Visit the National Center for Children in Poverty, Discuss Commonalities and Differences in Promoting Healthy Child Development

For 26 years, the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health has been a resource for information and insights on the plight of low-income children in the U.S. and the best policies and programs to promote their healthy development. A recent visit to NCCP by a delegation from South Korea made it clear that while the two countries differ in many ways, they share a concern for vulnerable children.

During the September 3 visit, 21 local and national officials from South Korea learned about the work the public policy research center is doing to promote the economic security and well-being of children and their families. Along the way, the delegation heard about lack of maternity leave and other unique challenges facing children in the U.S., as well as common goals between the two countries.

“Ensuring a healthy and promising future for children is a common value around the world” said Renée Wilson-Simmons, NCCP director and assistant professor in Mailman’s Department of Health Policy and Management. “We appreciated the opportunity to compare notes with this group from South Korea and talk about what we believe is needed to better support marginalized families.”

Where children are concerned, the two countries also have stark differences. In the United States, 22 percent of children live in poverty; by one estimate, the rate of child poverty is less than half in that South Korea. Another way the countries diverge is maternity leave. South Korea mandates 90 days of maternity leave at full pay, and one year of child care leave at 40 percent of pay for either parent. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that lacks paid maternity leave under the law.  

Without maternity leave and other paid family leave, many American parents, particularly those with low incomes, find themselves in a situation where work obligations compete with children’s needs for parental time and energy. Curtis Skinner, NCCP’s director of Family Economic Security, pointed to studies that show paid leave bolsters family economic security and the health of both mother and child. “It’s very important to have these programs,” says Skinner, “and we continue to publicize findings about the importance of this work, as well as monitor public sentiment and political receptiveness regarding paid family leave becoming law.”

While the federal government doesn’t guarantee paid family leave, three states do: California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. However, in New Jersey, program take-up by low-income working families has been disappointing. Using focus groups, Skinner and colleagues are now working to understand why. Among the possibilities:  Absence of job protections and insufficient wage replacement, which is set at two-thirds of a pay for six weeks.

Via a translator, the South Korea delegation also heard about two evaluation projects with funding from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Circle of Security is designed to strengthen parent-child relationships and promote healthy social-emotional development in young children. Project LAUNCH (Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health) supports the social and emotional development of children and their families in high-need neighborhoods. In addition, NCCP staff presented on, a online resource for research on childcare and early education. 

Reflecting on her NCCP visit, Han Nayoung, assistant director of the Division of Child Rights in the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, was impressed by the quality and scope of the presentations and stressed their value to her home country. She added that both NCCP and South Korean officials agree that sharing information and data can bring about positive change.