The number of new mothers receiving paid maternity leave has climbed to a majority for the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday, but the news drew tepid reactions from advocates because the benefit remains largely unavailable to younger and less-educated women.

Fifty-one percent of working women who had their first child between 2006 and 2008 received paid leave, compared with 42 percent between 1996 and 2000. That is the highest rate since the census started tracking leave data in 1981.

However, the trend split sharply on education lines: 66 percent of women with bachelor's degrees or higher received paid leave, compared to only 18 percent of high-school dropouts.

The increase reflects social forces that have been building for years, including changes in the female workforce -- with older, better-educated mothers using benefits as well as protections under federal law to support their families. In addition, a handful of states have enacted paid-leave laws.

Even so, the women who could benefit most from paid leave are the ones who aren't getting it as much, said Erin Kelly, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. "People who are already living paycheck to paycheck, if they don't have access to paid leave they're going to have to quit or they're going to have to do something that is really unhealthy for themselves or their babies," Kelly said.

"The lack of [federal] paid leave policy means in effect we are pushing those women to quit," said Kelly, who has studied corporate leave policies before and after the advent of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guaranteed unpaid leave for new mothers.

Schooling, experience

The share of women using paid leave increased as they got older, from 24 percent of first-time mothers under age 22 to 61 percent of those 25 and older, according to the census data. That reflects in part more schooling and work experience, which enabled older women to find jobs with better pay and benefits.

In the 2008-09 recession, most jobs lost were in middle-wage occupations, while jobs added in the slow recovery have been mostly lower-wage positions, according to the National Employment Law Project. The reduction in middle-wage jobs has contributed to a widening benefits gap between higher-skilled and lesser-skilled employees.

That might explain why the rate of high-school dropouts with paid leave actually declined in the past decade.

"Access to paid leave is limited, and it's also sharply regressive," said Lynda Laughlin, a census demographer. "For working families where the norm now is for both mom and dad to work, not having some kind of paycheck coming in ... can be a real financial burden."

Kelli Thorson, 28, got pregnant with her first child only a couple of months after taking a new job as a makeup artist and skin-care specialist. So she fell just short of her company's 12-month requirement to qualify for short-term disability pay, which would pay two-thirds of her salary while on leave.

Instead, Thorson will be leaving Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids today with her new son, Vincent, and taking unpaid leave for three months. Her husband's paycheck as a welder will sustain the family for now, though he will also be taking unpaid leave next week. Thorson said the couple will cut expenses to afford the time off with their son.

"We can't get mad," she said, "because a baby's a baby."

FMLA enables workers with new children or seriously ill family members to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. But it excludes companies with fewer than 50 employees. Minnesota has its own version, the State Parental Leave Act, which requires businesses that employ at least 21 people in one location to provide unpaid leave.

Embarrassing neighborhood

Past efforts in Congress to require paid family leave have failed, lumping the United States with Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and a few other countries that do not require paid benefits on a national level. California, New Jersey and Washington require partial paid leaves.

Kelly, the U sociologist, suspects the passage of the California law in 2005 might explain an increase in women reporting paid leaves in the census data.

Another shortcoming of the Census report is that it doesn’t define the type of benefit that women received. The Census considered women as receiving paid leave whether they received a standalone maternity benefit that provided 100 percent of their pay, or whether they merely burned through some of their paid time off or vacation days to be with their newborns.

A survey of benefit policies for 2011-2012 found that only 4 to 6 percent of U.S. employers offered paid maternity leaves for women beyond short-term disability. That rate was comparable, 4 to 5 percent, among Minnesota employers who participated in the survey.

Companies typically offer paid maternity leave after weighing the costs of finding and training a substitute employee, said Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University.

"The question is whether we can politically, as well as privately, create a wider blanket of support for these families," Gerson said.

Thorson plans to return to work as a makeup artist and skin-care specialist in three months. She already had to take a month off for hospital bed rest, though, so her maternity leave will be longer than the 12 weeks of job protection offered by federal law.

She doesn't see much risk, though, as her company employs mostly women and is used to maternity leaves. But if there is risk, she said, it's worth it. "You only raise a baby once," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to the report.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744