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DU Professor Tackles Paid Family Leave in D.C.

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Alyssa Hurst

Feature  •

In a country full of red and blue, Americans somehow still have a difficult time making purple. In fact, these are some of the most partisan times

in the history of the U.S., says Jennifer Greenfield, assistant professor in DU’s Graduate School of Social Work.

But there’s one issue on which we seem willing to chase that elusive hue. It brings together working parents with infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), people caring for spouses as they face chemotherapy and politicians whose interactions are too-often filled with vitriol. That’s the need for paid family leave.

“[Paid family leave] is an issue that people can get behind because, fundamentally, this is an issue about families and how families take care of one another and how we structure our work lives to enable us to be whole people,” says Greenfield, who recently sat on a panel addressing the subject in front of D.C. lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

Greenfield is DU’s voice at the table when it comes to the conversation around paid family leave. After years of researching the long-term consequences of caregiving, she recently was appointed to an advisory council for the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Paid Family Leave, and she has the ear of some of D.C.’s most powerful folks — including Ivanka Trump and Rick Santorum on the right and Chris Dodd on the left.


Jennifer Greenfield at Bipartisan Policy Center panel
Jennifer Greenfield at Bipartisan Policy Center panel

Greenfield has long studied the relationship between caregiving for older adults and caregivers’ ability to prepare for their own retirement, but when she found herself in the NICU with “medically fragile” twins, she got a broader view of the issue. “I’m watching health disparities occur. I’m watching the moms who don’t have access to leave have babies who therefore don’t get the health benefits of mom being there,” Greenfield says. “This is really something that’s a life-course issue. This is not just caregiving for older adults — this is something we encounter throughout our lives.”

Since then, Greenfield has worked with a team of researchers to develop expertise around the issues of caregiving and paid family leave. Now, she has the opportunity to use that knowledge in a powerful way that could genuinely affect every American.

Though Greenfield says most Americans support some kind of paid leave plan, questions persist around funding and scope, Greenfield says. There currently are two proposed models, one leaning on Social Security and focusing on parental leave, and the other aiming to create a new form of social insurance that would broadly address family leave. But right now, both proposals fall solidly on party lines. “[These two plans] are kind of the bookends, and that’s where the task force needs to get to how we craft a compromise that will bring co-sponsors of each on board,” Greenfield says. “It’s going to be an interesting conversation to see how we move people from those two spots.”

Jennifer Greenfield

Based on her experiences and work to date, Greenfield hopes that meaningful change could come soon. “I think folks in Washington and around the country — legislators and voters — are craving issues that can bring people together,” she says.

More encouraging still is the fact that experts on the topic have been tapped to inform policy creation. “One of the things I find most inspiring about this whole process is that [policy makers] are very interested in what the research says. Folks often don’t get that picture. They have the impression that policy is being made in a vacuum without the benefit of evidence, and that’s not what I’m seeing,” Greenfield says. “It’s really exciting as a researcher to be a part of the conversation and to be able to share what I know about the issue.”