Family leave gets a boost
Our view: Donald Trump’s plan for maternity leave is relatively small and its details problematic, but as symbolism, it could prove enormous
Pity the poor reporters covering this week’s announcement by Donald Trump that he wants to guarantee new mothers six weeks of paid leave. What’s the lead? Is it his complete and utter departure from conservative orthodoxy on the role of government in business decisions? The softening influence of his eldest daughter Ivanka? Or perhaps the hollowness of the proposal, particularly the claim it won’t cost taxpayers a dime or adversely impact the deficit?
Here’s what it probably should be: The latest evidence that the United States may soon be catching up with the rest of the industrialized world in recognizing how essential paid family leave is to the health of babies and mothers. The mechanisms may vary, but countries economically on par with the U.S. either provide or require paid leave — as little as10 weeks or as much as 39 weeks in the case of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Trump’s version is, in a word, pitiful, compared to the international standard — just six weeks of leave at likely much less than full (perhaps more like half ) salary, given that it’s based on unemployment benefits. How would he pay for it? That may be the silliest part of all: He expects to find billions of dollars in savings through a crackdown on unemployment insurance fraud.
Eliminating fraud would be wonderful, of course. Studies have suggested there may be several billion dollars of it going on. But even if all of it is uncovered overnight, it’s unlikely to cover the bill, and even so, it means employers would have to continue overpaying for unemployment insurance and would thus be subsidizing the maternity benefit. In reality, Mr. Trump ought to admit that this is a social safety net expansion that will ultimately cost taxpayers — but that in the long term, the rewards provided by the benefits will more than justify their cost.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has offered a more robust plan that she says will be financed by requiring more affluent taxpayers to pay more. We are skeptical of that promise as well, given the reluctance within Congress (at least as it’s currently constituted) to raise taxes on the wealthy. But at least her plan includes fathers and same-sex partners who, at least since last we looked, had pretty essential roles to play in nurturing a child.
States including Maryland have been grappling with the family leave issue in recent years as well. That Ms. Clinton is now involved is appropriate, given that unpaid family leave — a once quite controversial federal mandate — was signed into law by her husband in1993. Of course, that took place only after nearly a Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, joined here by his daughter, Ivanka, this week proposed a new plan for paid maternity leave. decade of debate in Congress and a veto by Mr. Clinton’s predecessor, George H.W. Bush. California, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island have adopted paid family leave mandates with New York’s considered the most generous (covering up to two-thirds of salary for 12 weeks).
We will be the first to admit the issue can be fraught: How long? How much? And who should pay? But both political parties ought to embrace the goal of providing working parents an opportunity to provide for their newest family members. Like ensuring children have access to basic health care, nutrition, decent housing and education, this ought to be a bare-minimum standard in the wealthiest nation on the planet.
Republicans have long complained that not all businesses can afford paid family leave. Fair enough. But the answer can’t be to disadvantage certain children and mothers because of this misfortune. How much of a minimum paid family leave benefit should be required of employers and how much should be subsidized and by whom? It’s the same difficult question that surrounded the Affordable Care Act and health insurance.
Mr. Trump’s plan may only be a politically-motivated gesture (and likely roundly ignored by many members of his own party), but it does move the debate from whether paid family leave should be a federal policy to howbest to accomplish the task. Ms. Clinton’s plan may be more appealing, but, in the year of Sen. Bernie Sanders and his liberal uprising against the economic oligarchy, it doesn’t represent nearly as much risk-taking for a Democrat.