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Democrats need a new social security — paid family and medical leave is it

The leading paid leave proposal, which the House Ways and Means committee advanced last week, would establish 12 weeks of paid leave across the US workforce.

A national bus tour campaign supporting Paid Leave for All stops in Boston’s Copley Square on Aug. 22. Among the speakers was US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Since Joe Biden’s election, Democrats have compared their challenge with the one Franklin D. Roosevelt and his party faced during the New Deal: enact policies that simultaneously address pressing problems and broaden Democrats’ coalition of allied voters and supportive groups. The lodestar is Social Security — a breakthrough that transformed retirement for the better and forged enduring bonds between working Americans and the Democratic party. Famously, FDR told an adviser that the design of Social Security wasn’t about economics but “politics all the way through.” The goal, the president quipped, was to ensure “no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”

With the 2022 midterm election looming, Democrats have some big policy achievements to point to. What they don’t yet have is a social policy landmark that could cement the loyalties of a new generation of voters and embolden and expand the scope of Democrats’ organized allies. Fortunately, such a program is at the heart of the $3.5 trillion budget bill that the president and congressional leaders hope to pass in the coming weeks: national paid family and medical leave.


Done right, paid leave could be Democrats’ Social Security for the 21st century: a highly visible program that reaches racially and economically diverse constituencies, responds directly to work and care challenges that disproportionately confront Democratic voters yet are universal to working families, and has the capacity to empower a broad set of advocates who will fight to protect and expand it over time.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act — now over a quarter-century old — only 56 percent of US workers have access to leave, and it’s unpaid. This starkly contrasts with the situation in other rich democracies, where most workers have guaranteed access to paid leave for the births of children, the care of loved ones, and their own illnesses. In the US private sector, adequate paid leave is all but nonexistent. The result is a huge hole in the US framework of social protection and the economy overall. Of course, the pandemic has only made things far worse, as millions left or lost jobs due to health and family caregiving needs or came to face the long-term health effects of COVID-19.


If the need is great, so too are the potential political payoffs. Paid leave is the fulcrum of a family-centered agenda that could be identified with Biden and his party for decades to come. That agenda includes not just current proposals for paid leave, but also recent child tax credit enhancements (currently temporary) and new and proposed investments in child care and home- and community-based care. Current proposals for paid family and medical leave are more substantial than anything seriously considered in Congress before, with studies suggesting they would pump billions of dollars back into the economy, strengthen the labor market, and shore up families’ economic security and health. America’s lack of paid leave pre-pandemic cost an estimated $650 billion per year while imposing enormous risks on all families and almost unfathomable burdens on those in need of leave (for a typical family, nearly $10,000 in lost wages alone).

To transform politics as well as the economy, however, a program has to do more than make people’s lives better, vital as that is. It also has to unleash what political scientists call “policy feedbacks” that encourage the entrenchment of new policies and reward politicians who champion their expansion. The most fateful decisions about paid leave are the ones that will determine whether it follows the path of Social Security from a divisive fight into a third rail of American politics.


Decision number one concerns size. A program needs to offer meaningful benefits that show the relevance of government investments and encourage a distrustful electorate to see the public sector as working better. The leading paid leave proposal, which the House Ways and Means Committee advanced last week, would establish 12 weeks of paid leave across the US workforce. Leave could be taken for a range of qualifying, documented needs: caring for a seriously ill, injured, or disabled loved one; bonding with a new child; dealing with the special challenges of military life; or treating a worker’s own serious health issue. Those who qualify would receive up to 85 percent of lost wages, with two-thirds wage replacement for a typical worker.

These are strong provisions, and inevitably Democrats will be under intense pressure to scale back as moderate members seek to bring down the overall size of the reconciliation package. Yet substantial cuts could undermine the positive effects of the program, breeding alienation instead of allegiance. Recent findings from state paid leave programs show the benefits of paid leave but also highlight what could go wrong if Congress invests too little: benefit levels that are too low; application processes and portals that are confusing; unclear timelines for the receipt of benefits; delays in processing claims; and lack of awareness that benefits even exist.


Equally important is ensuring that the federal government’s role is obvious and effective. Social Security’s success rests on its simplicity and efficiency. Paid leave needs a similarly strong national agency. In the few pioneering states that have set up their own programs, the federal government can coordinate with state authorities to ensure the effective provision of generous benefits. But everywhere else, benefits should come directly from or be overseen by the federal government — not just because political responsibility for them will be clear, but also because they’re more likely to be delivered effectively.

Finally, a paid family and medical leave program must be designed to build organized allies as well as a broader voting constituency. Even before the pandemic, 8 in 10 voters (including nearly three-quarters of Republicans) backed national paid family and medical leave, and support has only grown more intense. But today’s hyper-polarization means that partisan voters are hard to sway. Attracting interest-group support can help in public persuasion and in ensuring programs stick and grow. Paid leave is on the agenda because hundreds of organized groups — from labor organizations to advocates for women to groups representing communities of color — have pushed it there, and these paid-leave stakeholders need to be listened to now and, along with health providers, community-based organizations, and employer groups, put at the center of outreach and promotion efforts later.


Indeed, a well-designed program could attract unlikely allies. Social Security gained backing not just from labor unions but also, in time, from conservative business groups, the membership of which realized they could actually cut the costs of providing retirement pensions by building their plans on top of Social Security. A federal paid leave program could have the same effect. Federal investments in paid leave creates opportunities for employers to offer more generous benefits on top of the federal standard, encouraging employers to gain vested interests in the program.

A new New Deal is going to require a lot more than new programs. Absent political reform, Democrats could win majority support for their ideas but still fail to pass them due to the filibuster or lose elections due to GOP gerrymandering and voter restrictions. But a family-focused agenda centering on generous paid leave is the programmatic piece that’s needed: an opportunity right now to both help the American people and build the party’s power. One day not long from now Joe Biden could well be saying “no damn politician can scrap my paid leave program,” while his party reaps the political benefits.

Vicki Shabo is a senior fellow and policy expert at New America. Jacob S. Hacker is a professor of political science at Yale University.