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Progress on family leave is promising, but more is needed 

President Donald Trump speaks during the White House

President Donald Trump speaks during the White House Summit on Child Care and Paid Leave in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

America has finally raised itself from the bottom rungs of the industrial world by establishing 12 weeks of paid family leave for federal workers.

The measure was tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act and is expected to be signed by President Donald Trump on Friday.

It’s a historic achievement, even if it comes too late for many parents. The U.S. birth rate has been declining, and one factor is financial insecurity. For many Americans, having a child means economic hardship and a host of hard choices: Go back to work right after a child’s birth? Squeak by on sick days or time off?

Caring for a newborn is neither a sickness nor a vacation. And many new mothers are nudged from the workforce entirely.

The obvious solution is more flexibility for employees. It's good for the economy, too, easing employment barriers for women and giving men a boost in demanding the time.

This has long been an issue pushed by Democrats, now so universally supported that it has become bipartisan.  Recent champions include New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter. Some states moved earlier. In New York, a phased program ensures some paid time at partial salary for workers at many private companies. 

The new policy for federal workers avoids some pitfalls of earlier proposals. It is paid for as part of the budget, not pulling from parents’ Social Security benefits. Now private companies should follow the federal lead. Only 17 percent of civilian workers had access to paid family leave in 2018, according to labor statistics.

We can do better. This week’s advance is the right start. — The editorial board