Economy & Business

Is Paid Family Leave Conservative?

Conservative policymakers evaluate the possibilities.

Washington, D.C. — As part of her flailing presidential run, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand has been touting her FAMILY Act, a piece of legislation that would guarantee twelve weeks of paid family leave for new parents and other caregivers. Every senator competing for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination has signed on as a co-sponsor.

Republicans, meanwhile, have yet to coalesce around a paid-family-leave plan — or even to agree on whether paid family leave is a conservative idea in the first place. These issues were the focus of an event on Capitol Hill this week hosted by the Ethics and Public Policy Center: “Is Paid Family Leave Compatible with Conservative Principles?”

The event’s first panel featured a debate on the title question. Arguing in favor of paid leave were Aparna Mathur, a scholar in economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute who directs the AEI–Brookings working group on paid family and medical leave, and Kristin Shapiro of the Independent Women’s Forum, who authored the initial policy paper from which GOP politicians have drawn inspiration in crafting their paid-leave bills.

On the other side, Heritage Foundation research fellow Rachel Greszler and Mercatus Center research fellow Veronique de Rugy argued that even Republican proposals for paid leave are fundamentally incompatible with a proper conservative understanding of the federal government’s role.

Much of the opposition from Greszler and de Rugy stemmed from slippery-slope concerns, the belief that, once established, even a limited parental-leave program would eventually be expanded to cover other forms of leave, further increasing the size and scope of the federal government. Their arguments dealt primarily with Shapiro’s proposal — now embodied in two slightly different bills sponsored by four GOP senators — to allow new parents to collect some of their Social Security benefits after the birth or adoption of a child and delay collecting those benefits at the time of retirement.

“Where we don’t seem to agree is on the purpose of Social Security, or on Congress’s future ability to refrain from expanding what . . . would start out as a small program with a minimal cost,” Greszler said. She predicted that the idea would become “a large-scale, massive program that would cover all types of leave at a very great cost.”

Greszler noted that there are already proposals to create a similar program allowing young people to borrow from Social Security to repay their student loans, and she warned that this or similar policies could gain traction in the wake of passing a conservative paid-parental-leave bill.

Shapiro and Mathur maintained that paid parental leave is popular with most Americans and cautioned that if conservatives refuse to show up to the table with their own proposals, they will be left behind as the public coalesces around the expansive Democratic solution. Shapiro also argued that a conservative plan would be a pro-life policy to help those most in need and reduce infant mortality, filling in the gaps especially for low-income families who don’t already have paid leave through their employers.

The second panel of the morning featured policy advisers from three Senate offices outlining the differences between the two Republican proposals for paid leave. The CRADLE Act, sponsored by Senators Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Mike Lee (Utah), would permit new parents to receive one, two, or three months of paid-leave benefits in exchange for postponing their Social Security benefits for two, four, or six months. The New Parents Act, from Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Mitt Romney (Utah), similarly would allow new parents to use some of their Social Security benefits to finance up to three months of parental leave but also would allow parents to take benefits even if they were not employed at the time of a child’s birth (so long as they had a sufficient earnings history). Parents could choose to finance the benefit either by delaying retirement for three to six months or by reducing the amount of their Social Security benefits for the first five years post-retirement.

Representatives Dan Crenshaw (Texas) and Ann Wagner (Mo.) are co-sponsoring the New Parents Act in the House.

Caleb Orr, a policy adviser for Rubio, explained the distinction between the two bills by noting that requiring a set period of leave in order to obtain the benefit — as the Lee-Ernst bill would do — might discourage at least some families or parents from choosing to take leave at all, which would undermine the goal of the policy.

“The main practical fact that we encounter in requiring leave is that most low-income mothers don’t work salaried professions,” Orr said. “Requiring leave in a one-month to three-month fashion in a standardized way simply does not match with the reality of low-wage work forces.” He argued that the Rubio-Romney bill would benefit small-business employees not eligible even for unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, as well as those who might work part-time or work from home shortly after the birth of a newborn.

Meanwhile, Jena McNeill and Christy Woodruff, advisers in the offices of Ernst and Lee respectively, emphasized the importance of facilitating time for new parents to bond with and care for a newborn, which wouldn’t necessarily happen without the requirement that parents actually take time off work in order to receive the benefit.

So far, only these four Republican senators have signed on to a particular parental-leave policy, but supporters of the idea point to Ivanka Trump’s interest and argue that now is the time for conservatives to gain public support, before Democrats beat them to it.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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