President Obama’s “middle class economics,” a major theme in last night’s State of the Union speech, aimed to be family friendly, most especially through paid family leave. Specifically, the president has urged that the government provide six weeks of paid leave for federal workers needing to care for a sick family member or a new child, and he wants to put additional funds into encouraging states to do something similar.
The president’s proposal puts conservatives in a bind. On a practical level, Democrats have now put their label on a policy that the public seems to like a whole lot.
Philosophically speaking, family leave puts two conservative principles in tension. Government regulation that stifles businesses and interferes with an employer’s right to run his own companies is a bête noire of the right. But conservatives are also big on “family values.” That phrase used to carry with it a presumption of stay-at-home mothering, but with male wages stagnant and 71 percent of mothers in the labor force, the expectation has minimal hold on the public imagination. In any case, if there is a better advertisement for family values than a photo of a mother and father tending to their newborn baby, I can’t think of any. If that photo has a tagline “Thank you, Democrats!” . . . well, you see the problem.
So what’s a right-winger to do?
It’s a tough call, but a lot of conservatives might be convinced to sign on to family leave policies if they are done very carefully. The first priority is to leave decisions up to the states. So far that is what’s happening. True, in 1993 President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FAMLA), which guaranteed up to twelve weeks of leave to workers — male and female — to care for a sick family member or a newborn or recently adopted child. But FAMLA made some important business-friendly exceptions: It didn’t include companies with fewer than 50 on the payroll, and it only applied to workers who have been at the same firm for a year. It was also unpaid, meaning there were no direct costs to businesses and no new taxes.
More recently, states have entered the picture. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have all passed bills to add the word “paid” to family leave. Consider the 2004 California law, the granddaddy of the group. Six weeks of partially paid leave is paid for by an employee payroll tax of an average of 30 dollars a year; businesses don’t spend a dime — at least directly. (Ironically, 60 percent of employers saved money since they were able to shift some of the costs of their own pre-existing benefits to the state plan.) I’ve looked for evidence that California’s program has had “I told-you-so” ill economic effects but haven’t found any. A 2010 survey of 253 California large and small employers found virtually no complaints about reduced productivity or profits.
That’s not to say that the California program is flawless. Legislators recently expanded the definition of family members an employee can claim as needing their care to include not just a spouse, child, or parent, but grandparents, in-laws, and siblings. Conceivably, a worker could get six weeks of paid leave year after year almost indefinitely; an employer who raises a peep could find himself at the wrong end of a lawsuit. The California Chamber of Commerce also points out that the state has a dozen or so other protected leaves, including “School Activities Leave” (40 hours per year), “School Appearance Leave,” and “Victims of Crime Leave.” The hodgepodge of mandates, each of them requiring separate paperwork, especially when some leave is taken intermittently (the six weeks of family leave can be taken in several chunks), is precisely the sort of regulatory morass that conservatives rightly warn about. This should serve as a warning to other states considering passing bills.
A more subtle problem is the possible impact on marriage. The largest subgroup to take advantage of the California law was unmarried mothers, probably because many married mothers, who tend to be more educated and in higher-skilled jobs, already had company leave. Between federal and local governments, a large infrastructure of policies — pre-K, special education, food stamps, supplemental-security income (SSI), to name just a few — have grown in some measure around the needs of low-income single mothers. Whether, or how much, that infrastructure promotes more non-marital childbearing is impossible to know, but it’s a question we should be asking.
Still, the benefits of a modest, business-friendly family-leave program tips the balance in its favor. Five hundred dollars a week, the California average benefit, can make an enormous difference for struggling lower-middle-class parents. It’s an agonizing thing for a mother to leave her two-week-old for eight-plus hours a day to pay the rent. If the people of California — or Oklahoma or Minnesota — want to do something about that, should conservatives really object?