Why Parents Need the Next President to Look at Europe's Policies (OPINION)

President Obama can't say anything nice about Europe. If he makes any reference to the continent or their family-friendly policies he's a socialist--or, as Romney put it back in January, someone who "wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society."

Romney's take has been not just that Obama's a Europe-lover who cares about the needy (read: a pansy), but that any association with the continental way of doing things necessarily involves a dissing of our own. Thus his cynical applause line: "This President takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe, we look to the cities and small towns of America."

Now, through a recently released recording that was, unbeknownst to him, made at a Republican fundraiser, Romney explains that 47 percent of America is dependent on these European-style entitlements-- things like health care-- and that his "job is not to worry about those people."

Of course it's not true that people who rely on government are pathetic, lazy shlubs--or, for that matter, that they're in the minority. Even Romney, who is among the lucky few who can probably afford medical care whatever calamity befalls him, needs someone to build those roads he drives his Cadillac over.

Still, the potential vulnerability for further small-minded attack along the America-hating pansy lines is probably why Obama and the Democrat strategists don't draw more attention to Europe's vastly superior treatment of families.

There's no reason the rest of us should let this freedom fries-style jingoism intimidate us, though. Why should we ignore countries (with a collective population of 733 million people) that have done far more to help parents spend time with their kids than we have?

This is election season. We shouldn't be bullied into some dumbed-down dialogue over who's got the bigger flag pin. It's the time to interrogate our potential leaders about how they can make our lives better. It's the time to talk about the land just across the sea where families have it way better: Europe. (Europe! Europe! Europe! Just typing it feels good.)

Take, for instance, the laws that protect European parents from getting fired for having a sick kid or taking care of their own medical problems. There's no such protection for American parents, of course.

Then there's the fact that part-time workers in Europe have pro-rated benefits and pay, not to mention health insurance, while American parents who want or need to work part-time often wind up in low-paying jobs with no benefits-- if they can stay employed at all.

But perhaps the most infuriating contrast is on paid leave. In Europe, most new parents get at least six months of paid time off from work and, in several European countries, they get more than three years.

Because European countries have been providing paid leave for decades, we now know that this policy doesn't just help parents, it translates into less sickness and death among babies. Two studies, one published in the Economic Journal in 2005 and another five years earlier, examined the steady climb in the amount of paid leave in 16 European countries, starting in 1969. By charting death rates against those historical changes, while controlling for potentially confounding factors, the authors were able to attribute a 20 percent dip in infant deaths to a 10-week extension in paid leave.

The truth is it's not just Europe that treats its families way better, but much of the rest of the world. At least 145 countries have paid sick time laws. And the U.S. is one of only three countries that don't provide paid maternity leave. Every other nation, including the People's Republic of Congo, the very poorest in the world--provide paid leave.

Yet, the GOP, which has still somehow held onto its image as the "family values" party in some circles, shuns discussion of such humane and literally life-saving policies. And, here in the U.S., we still muddle along with a quarter of working mothers back at work within eight weeks of giving birth and one in ten--more than half a million women each year!-- back in four weeks or less.

If Romney's blindered vision plays with his wealthy donors and, perhaps, in the heartland, it doesn't work as well on the global stage. Indeed, if Romney hates Europe, the feeling is mutual. And there's plenty of reason to fear how he'll be received in the rest of the world, too.

But it's families here who should be the most concerned. To have children is to need things-- unexpected time off, health care, a decent stretch to recover from birth and bond with a baby.

Yet, so far, Romney's family policy seems to be simply that he has one (a family, that is). Purportedly he's nice to them. Plus, as my fellow blogger points out, Ann Romney makes good pancakes.

But that does not equal a plan to improve the lot of American parents, who want supports like paid leave not because they're lazy, dependent shlubs, but rather because they're caring humans who need to work and would like to spend a little time with their children.

Read more opinions from Sharon Lerner

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