The common refrain since the midterms has been that a divided Congress won’t or can’t get anything done. I disagree. The election results provide a unique opportunity to put the focus squarely on working families, and one policy with a real chance is paid family leave.
As I have been telling Republicans for years, we need to pay attention to our core supporters: hard-working families. President Trump gets this, and he has galvanized working Americans like no Republican before him.
Today, middle-income American families are squeezed from all directions. Supporting the families raising the next generation is vital to our nation’s long-term success and prosperity. Healthy, well-behaved children prepared to learn will create a better learning environment for all of our children. We must face the reality that our laws and our culture have made it much harder for moms and dads to succeed at that task. It’s time to give parents the flexibility they need to be with them at the most crucial times of their lives.
In so many ways, young parents today are doing a better job building strong families. New research, for example, shows that Millennials are driving down the divorce rate. But a rapidly declining fertility rate means that while these marriages are more lasting, they are not creating families big enough to maintain our economy.
Women cite a lack of paid leave as one of the biggest reasons for not having as many children as they would like. Though estimates vary widely as to how many mothers lack access to paid leave — it depends on how generously the term is defined — the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 85 percent do not have a defined benefit. Also, one in four women return to work less than two weeks after giving birth. They simply can’t afford to miss the paycheck.
More important than economics, paid leave increases bonding time in the most crucial months of a child’s life. Researchers say that the lack of bonding time with a new child can lead to long-term mental health problems as well as to reduced overall potential and happiness. These impairments can also result in weakened family ties and a much more difficult life for the child.
When the last national family-leave policy, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), was debated in 1993, I opposed the law’s mandate on employers and its inability to cover the typical American worker who cannot afford to take unpaid leave to care for a loved one. But a lot has changed since then.
Today’s working families face new realities and struggles. Nearly 70 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 are working, and millions of homes are headed by single mothers juggling care for their families while trying to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the cost of child care has grown out of proportion to the growth in other household costs; in 33 states the cost of child care exceeds the cost of in-state college tuition and fees.
Democrats have long advocated paid leave, but in light of today’s family dynamics, Republicans are warming to the idea. President Trump has long supported it, and his daughter Ivanka has been an outspoken advocate. In Congress, Senators Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Joni Ernst (R., Iowa), and Mike Lee (R., Utah), along with Representative Ann Wagner (R., Mo.) in the House, are working on new ideas for a federal paid-parental-leave program. They, among others, recognize the serious impact on children and thus the country. This all follows the paid-leave tax credit for businesses included in the recent tax-reform bill.
This year, I joined the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Paid Family Leave, along with former senator Chris Dodd and Maria Contreras-Sweet, the former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, to propose an actionable, fiscally responsible federal leave program that will help Americans balance work and family.
Republicans need to roll up their sleeves, reach across the aisle, and get a new federal paid-leave program enacted. Paid parental leave is good policy and good politics.