The Lee-Ernst Paid-Leave Plan Would Be a Win for Working Families

Senator Joni Ernst (R, Iowa) (Gage Skidmore)
Conservatives should cheer budget-neutral policies that give new parents the flexibility they deserve.

Republican senators Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah recently introduced the Child Rearing and Development Leave Empowerment (CRADLE) Act, the latest conservative effort to develop a paid-leave policy that enables parents to stay home with their newborns.

The budget-neutral plan borrows from a policy paper by Kristin Shapiro of the Independent Women’s Forum and mirrors a similar bill that Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) proposed last Congress, with the backing of Ivanka Trump. It would amend the Social Security Act to allow parents to take up to three months off from work by drawing on their retirement benefits early in exchange for delaying their benefits after retiring. Both natural and adoptive parents could choose to collect benefits while taking time off from work for either one, two, or three months after a child’s birth. Every month taken off would add a two-month delay to activation of Social Security benefits once they reached retirement age, meaning they’d receive their benefits two, four, or six months later than they otherwise would upon retirement.

To opt into the program, parents could fill out a form notifying the Social Security Administration (SSA) of their choice to take paid leave, and the SSA would begin sending benefit payments two weeks after the parents applied for their child’s Social Security number. Benefit levels would be calculated using the formula that determines Social Security disability payments, taking parents’ income level into account; the payments would be highest for parents least likely to receive employer-sponsored paid-leave benefits. To be eligible, parents would have to meet work requirements.

The United States is the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — an intergovernmental economic alliance of 36 member countries — that doesn’t have a national paid-leave program.

Some American conservatives oppose family-leave proposals wholesale, on the grounds that they “entrench . . . learned helplessness, cementing the notion that there is no good and worthwhile thing anywhere that the American middle class could possibly be expected to do for themselves,” as Robert Tracinski put it in a piece last January. Other conservative economists have resisted these types of programs on the grounds that they “increase the scope of the government” and aren’t in fact budget neutral.

Left-wing commentators, meanwhile, have criticized the Lee-Ernst and Rubio proposals as insufficiently helpful to parents, arguing instead for a new welfare program that would offer a separate set of benefits to parents. Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig, for instance, suggested last year that Rubio’s bill would in fact “punish those who choose to have kids” and “penalize bigger families more than smaller ones.”

The latter critique is much less compelling than the former, even for those who stress the value to society of encouraging family formation and growth. No voluntary program can rightly be characterized as penalizing anyone — at worst, the CRADLE Act would offer parents one more option to use if they wish. No one would be compelled to opt into the program, and making benefits available earlier would give families greater financial flexibility than they currently have.

The conservative argument against the proposal is intriguing as a matter of principle, but it is worth noting that the Republican politicians offering these paid-family-leave bills in recent years are also some of the most conservative policymakers in the Senate. Leaders such as Rubio, Lee, and Ernst care deeply about limited, constitutional government that prioritizes personal responsibility and strong local communities over an enhanced welfare state. They also believe that encouraging family formation and stability and increasing upward mobility should be a priority of any flourishing society. This new proposal is an effort not to expand the government but to protect and cultivate family life, which ought to be the chief goal of any country that cares about its future. No conservative politician aims to instantiate a sprawling welfare state, but using an existing welfare program to encourage child-bearing can hardly be said to drastically undermine the conservative agenda.

“Families are the bedrock of our society. If young people can’t afford to marry and start a family, then the American dream literally has no future,” Lee said after unveiling the CRADLE Act last week. “We need to make sure our existing social-insurance programs are doing all they can to work for working families.”

“It’s past time we modernize our family-leave policies to reflect the evolving needs of today’s workforce and to reduce the barriers that pose challenges for parents balancing family and work,” Ernst added.

Especially as the Right grapples with populist arguments for greater government prioritization of the needs of working-class Americans negatively affected by globalization, conservatives should embrace efforts to incentivize family growth and offer parents more flexibility in caring for their newborns.

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