Public Opinion About Paid Family and Medical Leave – The Opportunity Agenda

By The Opportunity Agenda | Originally published April 2019

A report recently released by the Opportunity Agenda gives a comprehensive overview to research studies related to paid family and medical leave. The report provides information regarding gaps in public opinion research as well as a summary of what types of messaging and methods of communication are found to be most effective.


Our nation can and should be a place where everyone enjoys full and equal opportunity. We are strongest when we all have a fair chance to achieve our full potential, contributing fully to our economic engine and social fabric. When everyone has the tools to support themselves and their families, the benefits flow to individuals, communities, and our nation as a whole.

Key to that full and fair opportunity is the ability to pursue gainful work while maintaining a safe and healthy life for one’s children and family. Yet, in our changing economy, that opportunity is increasingly at risk as Americans must make the unacceptable choice between caring for sick family members and earning the full salary needed to support that family. Access to paid family and medical leave determines whether parents can care for a new baby or sick child, whether a dedicated worker can also dedicate time to an ailing or dying elderly parent, and whether a family health emergency will also become an economic catastrophe. Despite significant public support, political will has been lacking, leaving working families and national economic opportunity at risk. According to the National Compensation Study, only 14% of civilian workers had access to paid leave in 2016. Federal law has remained stagnant on the issue since the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires unpaid leave, passed in 1993, and state and local progress has been slow and uneven. The lack of paid family and medical leave burdens families of all backgrounds. It also worsens patterns of unequal opportunity based on race, ethnicity, gender, and income.

On behalf of the Opportunity Agenda, Lake Research Partners (LRP) conducted a review of research studies related to paid family and medical leave. This literature review synthesizes and summarizes relevant opinion research findings about attitudes toward paid family and medical leave. This report provides a detailed overview of gaps in existing internal and external public opinion research alongside a summary of what messages, messengers, mediums, and platforms have been most effective to date.

Download the full report here


Current Paid Family and Medical Leave Legislation

  • States are leading the way in implementing legislation to provide paid caregiving, parental, and medical leave.
  • On the national level, both Democratic and Republican legislators want federal paid family and medical leave legislation but disagree over what to cover and how to fund it.
  • Democratic voters tend to be more supportive of paid family and medical leave than Republican voters. However, there is a gender gap among Republicans.

Attitudes on Paid Family and Medical Leave: Small Business Community

  • Small business owners are supportive of paid family and medical leave, which could give them a competitive advantage, but many would prefer that employers be allowed to choose whether to provide paid family and medical leave.
  • Polls show that there is a great deal of support for paid family and medical leave in the United States and the support is bipartisan.
  • In addition to supporting a national paid leave policy, most Americans are also willing to contribute to funding for such a program.
  • Insights from dyads and focus groups conducted by Lake Research Partners suggest there may be opportunities to build support for paid family and medical leave among women of color and Independent/weak Republican women.
  • Working families respond best to messaging around paid family and medical leave that talks about helping your family and being there for them and that addresses the caregiving needs a person may have beyond simply parental leave.

Attitudes on Paid Family and Medical Leave: Caregivers

  • As the elderly population continues to grow, so does the number of people who are involved in informal caregiving of older family members. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 16% of the employed civilian population provided unpaid care to someone with an aging-related condition.
  • A growing number of Americans are recognizing the need to provide paid leave to care for an elderly family member who is seriously ill, injured, or disabled.
  • Access to paid family leave has demonstrable economic impacts, and lack of access has consequences.

Attitudes on Paid Family and Medical Leave: Communities of Color & Non-Traditional Families

  • A disproportionate number of those in communities of color do not have access to paid leave. A national paid leave policy would ensure equal access to paid leave.
  • FMLA does not recognize same-sex relationships, so employers are not required to provide leave to care for a same-sex partner or spouse. Access to paid leave is a major concern for LGBTQ workers.

Effective Messaging for Paid Family and Medical Leave

  • Determining the best messaging and language that will move voters from support to action on a national paid family and medical leave policy is critical as both Democrats and Republicans prepare for the 2020 election cycle.
  • Voters respond well to several of our key values in messaging, including the importance of family, the freedom to do what is right, and the recognition that caregiving is part of life.
  • Statements that focus on the positive impact of paid leave on economic security and not having to choose between giving care and getting a paycheck have a powerful and positive effect on voters and activists. Word choices like “workplace” or “public” do not affect results much.
  • The words used in a message, especially the first few words or “kickoff phrase,” can increase or decrease support. It is important to know how different audiences respond to particular words and statements.

Read the key takeaways and full report by the Opportunity Agenda here.

The Opportunity Agenda is a social justice communication lab that works to advance the impact of the social justice community. Social justice leaders need support to tell compelling and evocative stories that drive policy and culture change; the Opportunity Agenda exists to provide that support. They partner with leaders to move hearts and minds, and to drive lasting policy and culture change by lifting up the inspirational voices of opportunity and possibility.

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