Expanded parental leave: Are children better off?

Nearly 10 years later, the national program that doubled parental leave benefits has produced little evidence of improved early childhood development.

A study by researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto, which investigates the December 31, 2000, expansion of Canada’s parental leave benefits from six months to one year, raises questions about the effectiveness of the taxpayer-funded program and provides insight into the impact of parental care on early childhood development.

According to the study, published in the current issue of the U.S.-based Journal of Human Resources, the reform significantly increased the amount of maternal care that children receive between the ages of 7-12 months, with corresponding decreases in mothers’ full-time employment and childcare by relatives or unlicensed non-relatives.

However, despite these social impacts—paid for by Canada’s Employment Insurance system with up to $10,000 in additional benefits per child—the study finds a surprising lack of improvement across national early childhood development measures.

“When we compare the early development scores of infants up to age 29 months before and after this major increase in parental benefits, we see no evidence that this policy has improved their development,” says Kevin Milligan of UBC’s Dept. of Economics, who co-authored the study with Michael Baker of the University of Toronto.

“This policy enables parents to spend more time with their children, so is incredibly popular,” says Milligan, who has two young children. “But the question is, is it fair for taxpayers to be paying for a policy that evidence suggests is failing in its expressed goal of improving childhood development?”

The study was made possible by the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY), a Canada-wide survey of behavioral, social, emotional, and cognitive development of children. The researchers studied development scores of more than 2,100 infants over 6 birth-year cohorts.

After finding no post-reform improvements in developmental scores for infants aged 0-29 months, Milligan and Baker are now researching newly released NLSCY data to determine whether development impacts are occurring later in life, between the ages of 29 months and six years old.

“For infants under 29 months, we can track things like motor skills, temperament, and how quickly they sit up and walk,” says Milligan. “It can be difficult to assess cognitive development in infants, so the next phase of this study will look for any significant improvements in indicators that reflect this, like scores in math  and literacy.”

Ten years later, Milligan says the reform still stands among the largest expansions of parental leave benefits in any country in generations, providing important fodder to other nations who may be considering similar policies.

View the study, Evidence from Maternity Leave Expansions of the Impact of Maternal Care on Early Child Development, at: http://www.publicaffairs.ubc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Milligan-Baker_ParentalLeave.pdf

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UBC Reports | Vol. 56 | No. 12 | Dec. 3, 2010

UBC economist Kevin Milligan says doubling Canada’s parental leave program has not improved childhood development scores. Photo: Martin Dee

UBC economist Kevin Milligan says doubling Canada’s parental leave program has not improved childhood development scores. Photo: Martin Dee

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Evidence from Maternity Leave Expansions of the Impact of Maternal Care on Early Child Development

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