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Opinion | Michael A. Cohen

America’s backward approach to paid family leave

(Shutterstock / DONOT6_STUDIO)

America is the only industrialized country in the world that does not provide paid family leave for its citizens.

Unless you are one out of six Americans who receives paid leave from their employers — or live in one of the four states where it’s required — a new baby, a family illness, a sick child or parent often means cobbling together vacation days or going without salary.

For some Americans (many of whom are wealthy enough not to have make these kinds of choices), this anxiety-producing challenge is a small price to pay for freedom from meddlesome government diktats.

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In other developed countries, ordinary citizens must live under the iron boot of government-provided time off.

In fact, of the 42 countries surveyed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, the average maternity leave is 18 weeks. When one combines maternity, paternity, home care, and parental leave in OECD countries, the average is more than 52 weeks. In Estonia, Finland, Hungary, and Slovakia parents can take up to three years off. In 31 of the 41 countries surveyed, dads get paid time off as well.

Isn’t socialism the worst?

Somehow, many of the economies that provide such generous benefits to their citizens have not turned into dystopian hellholes.

Research consistently shows that providing workers with maternity leave benefits leads to be better employee performance and retention, stronger productivity, and higher economic growth. Lack of access to paid leave costs Americans millions in lost wages and forces many others into poverty when they take unpaid time off.

But as any parent will tell you, there are larger, intangible benefits: giving new mothers and fathers the flexibility to be with their newborns at such a critical moment in their development.

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In fact, economic and societal benefits of paid family leave have become so clear (and politically attractive) that some Republicans are now getting in on the act. Prodded by life-long feminist-ish Ivanka Trump, the White House has offered tepid support for giving parents six weeks of paid leave.

In 2017, Republicans passed legislation that allowed employers to receive a tax credit for providing 12 weeks of paid leave. And this week Republican Senators Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah introduced legislation, called the CRADLE ACT, which would allow Americans to receive up to three months of paid leave after the birth of a child. A similar plan was introduced by Senator Marco Rubio in 2018. The benefit would be restricted to only new parents who have recently held down jobs (so poor, young mothers need not apply), and here’s the rub — recipients would have to agree to take the money out of their Social Security benefits.

That means that the Cradle Act would, in effect, ask Americans with a benefit. It would force them to choose between maternity leave now or retirement benefits later. It’s paid family leave . . . paid for by workers.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the American welfare state.

In an op-ed touting their plan, Lee and Ernst note that “one of the most significant stumbling blocks for many new families is the lack of paid family leave for new parents.” But not so fast there, Karl Marx. If “government mandates businesses to cover those costs,” warn the two senators, “employees and employers would suffer in the form of fewer jobs and lower wages. If taxpayers foot the bill for another massive government program, our unsustainable national debt of $22 trillion will only continue to climb.”

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Fun fact: These two senators, along with all of their GOP colleagues, voted in 2017 for more than $1 trillion in tax cuts disproportionately geared toward wealthy Americans.

Legislation proposed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro, both Democrats, would give workers 12 weeks of paid leave at 66 percent of their annual salary for any family leave need — not just the birth of a child. It would cover both full-time and part-time workers and even those who are self-employed. A payroll tax would fund the plan, which would amount to about $2 a week for the average American — or $100 a year.

The Democrats’ plan is not nearly as generous as those in many OECD countries, and it still takes money from workers to pay for it, but philosophically it makes the right call — using employee contributions and government resources to fund a program that would provide broad economic and societal benefits.

While Ernst and Lee gauzily declare that “working families are the heart and soul of our nation” and warn that “if young people can’t afford to marry and start a family, then the American dream literally has no future,” their plan would put the primary financial burden for paid leave on these same workers. At the end of the day, their guiding principle is to avoid anything that smacks of socialism or prizes the interest of workers ahead that of their bosses. The result is a plan far too modest in its scope and one that prizes ideological purity over doing what’s best for working Americans.

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It’s precisely this approach that has led America to its current phase of gradual, but unmistakable, national decline: worse health outcomes, higher infant and maternal mortality rates, greater rates of obesity, and a populace that is more economically anxious and poorer than that of other developed countries.

There is no reason that things have to be this way or that Americans should have to accept government benefits so inadequate to the needs of a modern, industrialized society. A robust family leave program would modestly help reverse these trends. But the GOP’s proposal is just one more example of our penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to a social safety net that leaves so many Americans in the lurch. America can do better.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.