Examine reveals the affect of paid maternity go away on maternal well being

A study of women who were young mothers in the late 1970s found that those who were given longer paid maternity leave led healthier lives as they entered middle age.

While universal paid maternity leave is now available in many Western European countries, this has not always been the case. A new study by University of Georgia economist Meghan Skira looked at the health of Norwegian mothers before and after the Paid Maternity Leave Act in 1977. It found that the health benefits of leave lingered years after their children were born.

Skira, an associate professor at Terry College of Business, collaborated on the study with economist Aline Bütikofer from the Norwegian School of Economics and Julie Riise from the University of Bergen. Her article, “The Effects of Paid Maternity Leave on Maternal Health,” is online in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy and appears in the February 2021 print edition of the journal.

Public health studies and some economic studies have found positive short-term benefits for women and children with extended postnatal leave, but the approach by Skira and her co-authors was different. They were able to analyze the longer-term health effects of paid maternity leave for thousands of Norwegian women both before and after the vacation laws were implemented in July 1977.

“This sharp shift in who was entitled to paid maternity leave is a nice natural experiment,” said Skira. “It provides an environment in which we can examine the causal health effects of paid vacation. Our results show that access to paid vacation leads to important health benefits for mothers 40 and older.”

Women who gave birth after July 1977 were consistently in better health by middle age, but the greatest health gains were seen in low-income women who may not have been able to afford to take the full amount of unpaid leave available for change.

Skira and her co-authors examined biometric data such as body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and diabetes rates in combination with self-reported pain rates, mental health, tobacco use, and exercise habits to paint a comprehensive picture of the health of women aged 40 and over.

The women who had access to paid vacation had a BMI 2.5% to 3.7% lower than those who did not have access. They were 10% less likely to have high blood pressure. They smoked 16% to 18% less and 14% to 20% more often regularly.

We know women are healthier by 40, but we don’t know exactly why. We did not see any significant changes in income or employment in the women who had access to the reform, so that income effects are unlikely to improve health. We speculate that decreasing stress levels, more time to recover from childbirth, and possibly breastfeeding played a role. Further research into why maternal health is improving would be valuable. “

Meghan Skira, UGA economist

The study clearly shows that women stay home after giving birth and are healthier in middle age.

“In a typical observational study, you would fear that those who take more vacations are being different in ways that could improve or worsen their health,” Skira said. “Those who take longer vacations may be richer or have more family support. On the flip side, those who have more postpartum health problems can take more vacations. But here, because that access to paid vacations is changing a lot for everyone, is the concern about choosing goodbye to be minimized. “

This was possible because the Norwegian Public Health Institute collects health data on its citizens around the age of 40 to measure the country’s well-being. Through what is known as the Age 40 program, Skira and her co-authors had access to a wide range of data on the birth, health and income of women who gave birth immediately before and after the 1977 change in law.

Norway again expanded its paid vacation guidelines in 1987 and 1992, but those expansions have marginally improved the health of women over the age of 40, Skira said.

“There seems to be signs that returns are easing to leave the length,” Skira said. “However, maternal health is only one dimension of maternity leave – impacts on child outcomes, women’s retention in the labor market and employers are also important.”

As the 1977 mothers age, Skira hopes to look at their long-term health and disability insurance benefits to see if the health benefits they received in middle age had affected their quality of life when they retired. It is too early to say what long-term benefits this policy change will have, she said.

“While things have changed since the late 1970s, it is important to understand the implications of this policy change, as it will extend vacation benefits to levels consistent with what the US offers today under the Family and Medical Leave Act “said Skira. “Our results could therefore influence the current debate on family leave policy.”


Journal reference:

A. Bütikofer et al. (2021) The effects of paid maternity leave on maternal health. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. doi.org/10.1257/pol.20190022.

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