Family leave, an unexpected election winner?
Amid an election season rife with divisive rhetoric, the issue of paid family leave emerged as a rare bright spot, one where both candidates’ agendas seemed to align.
President-elect Donald Trump’s proposal will extend six weeks of paid maternity leave to mothers who do not currently receive coverage from their employers, and will allow parents to deduct child-care expenses from their income taxes for up to four children. It does not, however, extend the benefit to fathers, and also does little to address child-care expenses for the percentage of the population that does not earn enough income to pay taxes.
Despite those shortcomings, advocates for paid leave say that just having the Republican candidate include the issue on his platform is a sign of sea change.
“We saw in poll after poll, voters saying this was an issue they cared about,” said Vicki Shabo, the vice president of National Partnership for Women and Families. While many such policies have been supported by progressive candidates for decades, “the fact that it came up in the general election by the Republican candidate was totally unprecedented.”
It wasn’t happening in a void. Over sixty percent of American families now have two working parents, many of who feel the dual crush of coordinating childcare and healthcare for an elderly family member.
“People are demanding this because their lives can’t work without it,” said Adrienne Kimmell, the executive director of the Boston-based Barbara Lee Political Office, an advocacy group that works to elect progressive female candidates. One of the shifts she noticed during the campaign was how candidates’ talked about the issue, using the phrase family instead of maternity leave, which recast it as more than just a women’s issue.
“The framing has been much more economic,” she said.
For Hillary Clinton, the topic certainly wasn’t new. Her call for a guaranteed 12 weeks of paid family leave was an applause line in her stump speech as early as last fall.
President-elect Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, was credited as the architect of his policy, which she first announced during the Republican National Convention. When he unveiled the plan in September, it was met with some skepticism from critics who felt it didn’t provide coverage to the families who need it most.
“The Trump campaign’s plan for leave for new parents is all focused on tax credits, yet about 45 percent of the American work force doesn’t earn enough income to be paying taxes,” said Victoria Budson, who chairs the Women and Public Policy program at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
Still, she said, the fact that it was a campaign issue during this election cycle does mean something. “A decade ago you didn’t see the Republicans focus on issue like paid leave. You now have a real drumbeat in Congress about really examining these issues,” Budson said.
Politicans’ newfound focus on family leave was a response, in part, to the expectations of the electorate, who increasingly feel the United States has fallen behind on the issue. But there are other factors at play. Several states, including California, New York, and Rhode Island, have begun piloting paid family leave policies and are now beginning to measure the economic impact -- in California, 87 percent of employers reported no increase in operating costs after the policy was enacted.
In Massachusetts, a proposal to require employers to offer paid time was approved by the state Senate before dying in the House during the final days of the formal session this summer.
Congressional Democrats have sponsored The Family And Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would create a national family and medical leave insurance program tied to payroll contributions from workers and employers. But it’s unclear whether it will find support in a Republican-controlled Congress.
The shifting political tides are coupled with cultural changes in the way people work, Budson said.
“I think millennials in particular expect that they’re going to be able to live a productive and happy family life, and have a meaningful, productive, and prosperous work life,” she said. That demographic now makes up the largest segment of the nation’s workforce, according to the Pew Research Center, and what they want is going to shape policy in the future.
And while Shabo notes that Trump’s plan is not as comprehensive at Clinton’s was, “the fact that he dipped his toe in the water with a plan that is incomplete and not an ideal policy design does open the door to conversation and to talking about a way forward.”
Now, of course, it depends on whether the president elect and Congress will prioritize the policies they have promised.
“I think the American public is expecting and seeking action,” Budson said.