Supporting New Mothers Without Punishing Employers

by Reihan Salam

Over at Vox, Matt Yglesias, an expectant father, makes the case against mandating that employers provide paid maternity leave. While the idea of making employers pay might be politically popular, he warns that “if employers’ costs go up, they’ll find a way to take it out of employees’ paychecks in the long run.” He might have added that employers might also becoming less willing to employ women of childbearing age, particularly if the women in question can be replaced without too much difficulty. Moreover, he worries that no employer mandate will be universal, as small businesses would have to be shielded from the compliance costs such a mandate would inevitably entail. Part-timers would presumably be exempt from the mandate, as would independent contractors. Slowly but surely, more and more workers would be shunted off into these unprotected categories. So instead of calling for an employer mandate, Yglesias advocates a maternity benefit that would be structured like unemployment insurance or Social Security, “with everyone paying into the system with taxes that finance a universal benefits scheme.”

I happen to agree with Yglesias, but for different reasons. While Yglesias tailors his language to appeal to liberals, who might otherwise be drawn to an employer mandate, Abby McCloskey supports a universal maternity benefit on conservative grounds. Some women, including many high-wage workers employed by large firms, already have access to paid leave through their employers. The women who’d benefit most from a universal maternity benefit are low-wage workers employed by small firms, for whom paid leave is virtually unheard of. These women tend not to have the savings or the family support they’d need to ride out a long spell without paid work. When they fall out of paid work to care for a newborn, it can be difficult for them to find their way back in. Moreover, lengthy interruptions in work experience can lower one’s wages considerably over time. That’s why McCloskey, writing in Forbes, has suggested that a modest universal maternity benefit is best understood as a way to keep working mothers from falling into hardship without punishing employers. Because the benefit she proposes is fairly small, to help ensure that it doesn’t crowd out more generous paid leave policies currently offered by employers, McCloskey estimates that it would cost only $2.5 billion to provide six weeks of paid leave to workers without other paid leave options, an amount she believes can be raised by eliminating waste from the $93 billion spent on unemployment benefits in 2012 and the $200 billion spent on disability insurance each year. 

I can definitely see why conservatives might object to McCloskey’s proposal. A new government program is a new government program, even if it’s small. And if low-wage workers don’t have the savings or the family support to handle six weeks without a paycheck, perhaps civil society ought to step in. My concern is that for the women McCloskey’s proposal aims to help, low-wage work is a crucial stepping-stone towards economic self-sufficiency. Stable employment means steadily increasing work experience and steadily increasing wages, which in turn leads to less need for food stamps, wage subsidies, and other work supports. That’s no small thing. 

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