At a campaign visit to Aston, Pennsylvania Tuesday, Donald Trump announced a new policy proposal on paid maternity leave for all American women. According to the Washington Post, Trump would have the federal government guarantee six weeks of paid leave to every new mother.
Trump’s declaration puts him at odds with conservative orthodoxy and many Republican Party leaders. As with his minimum wage proposal, he has stolen a popular idea from the Democratic playbook. In this case, however, conservatives should think twice before rejecting this challenge to the status quo.
When a societal shift emerges, conservatives have two options: resist it with all our might, or accept it and work to make the resulting change fit with our idea of a just society. Which approach to choose depends on the nature of the shift. Abortion, for most conservatives, falls into the first approach, because we believe no just society can comprehend wholesale violence against its most vulnerable members.
Most other changes suggest the second approach. The income tax, for example, was new and radical a century ago; now, most changes we propose involve making it better, fairer, and simpler, rather than repealing it entirely. Most conservatives can imagine a just society that includes taxes in income.
Paid maternity leave increasingly looks to be another of these latter issues. Since women have entered the workforce in numbers equal to men, doing work equal to men, society must necessarily confront that women are different from men, most obviously regarding human reproduction.
A man and woman may agree to share child-rearing responsibilities equally, but one of them, physically, bears a far greater burden. How to handle that scenario for working women was always going to be a part of the question of women in the workplace. That we have done our best to ignore it until now shows the answer is not simple or obvious.
We Can Be Pragmatic About This
The question of whether and how to pay women for the time they spend away from work following the birth of a child is one on which reasonable people may disagree, and there are many shades of gray in among the potential answers. Who should pay? How much should they pay? Who is eligible? For how long? None of these questions requires the black-or-white answer suitable to the questions that truly divide American society. There is room for compromise, and conservatives can work to make that eventual compromise as close as possible to one that matches our vision of what our society should be.
Paid maternity leave is a change that is coming, whether conservatives want it or not. A YouGov survey last year found that 69 percent of Americans believed employers should be required to offer women paid leave after the birth of a child, against only 19 percent who were opposed. An AP-GfK poll earlier in 2015 found a similar result, with 67 percent in favor and 13 percent opposed.
Small-government conservatives recoil at the idea of progressives’ universal mandates, and rightly so, but facing a 50 percent margin of defeat in popular opinion, it might be time to abandon outright opposition and shift toward managing a just solution to something a large majority of Americans see as a serious problem.
Maternity Leave, Republican-Style
Trump’s paid maternity leave proposal works through the existing system of state unemployment insurance that has been in place since the New Deal. In its embrace of federalism, this is already more conservative than many proposals from the Left (existing unemployment insurance is subject to federal oversight but administered by the states).
Further, adding onto an existing benefit structure would mean maternity leave would be paid out through a state-by-state bureaucracy that has long experience in delivering benefits—and detecting fraud. A new federally administered benefit would mean a whole new system of rules and regulations, and a new bureaucracy to sort them out. We saw how well that worked out with Obamacare’s exchanges. Simply expanding the unemployment system to cover a new form of short-term joblessness avoids those growing pains and missteps.
The unemployment system also has the advantage of cost transparency. As with Social Security, unemployment insurance was sold to the American people as a kind of self-sustaining insurance system. This is only partly true. In both systems, there is no account with your name on it: benefits are paid out of current taxes. In both, although the amount you may receive is related to how long you worked and how much you earned, it is not a one-to-one correlation.
While both systems’ financing mechanisms appear transparent in the line-item flat tax listed on your pay stub, the truth is more complicated. Those taxes pay for Social Security and unemployment, but so do other taxes on employers that are not listed. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, it is all ultimately a tax on your labor, but only some of it is easily disclosed.
We’d All Have to Pay For This, For Sure
A more transparent policy would show the entire tax take on people’s pay stubs, letting the potential beneficiaries understand the full cost of their benefit. I suspect most people would not change their minds—the amount is still smaller than any other payroll deduction—but at least they would be working with all the facts.
This is where the Trump plan goes awry. With his typical fuzzy math, Trump calls his plan “self-supporting,” saying eliminating fraud in the system could pay for it. This is what politicians often tell us when they want to promise voters something for nothing. It is, as the vice president might say, “malarkey.”
To be fair to Trump, the source of Hillary Clinton’s plan’s funding is not much clearer. On her campaign website, Clinton promises 12 weeks of paid leave with “no additional costs on businesses” by some vaguely worded “tax reforms that will ensure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share.” To translate: “tax reforms” means “tax increases” and “wealthiest Americans” means anyone with a job.
Of all the 2016 candidates, only Bernie Sanders admitted he would raise taxes to pay for his maternity leave plan (also 12 weeks.) Although Sanders’s projected costs (“$1.61 a week for a typical worker”) are probably too optimistic, at least the voters can see the costs of the proposal before deciding if they want the benefit.
Let’s Make It Better
If conservatives cede the field to progressives on this issue, we will have no input into its outcome. The next time Democrats hold the presidency and Congress, they will impose their vision of maternity and paternity leave, whether we like it or not. To imagine how that might turn out, look at Obamacare: a bloated collection of recycled Beltway ideas spiced up with a few handouts to the insurance lobby and other interest groups, simultaneously unworkable and unrepealable. It was sold as cheap and easy to manage, and has proven to be anything but.
Republican involvement was never going to save Obamacare—the Democrats’ huge legislative majorities in 2009 made Republicans’ input unnecessary—but a program acceptable to both sides might have been better constructed and more successful at solving the problem. Instead, we have a program that makes life worse for the average American family. The same would likely be true of any new Democratic benefit scheme, including paid maternity leave.
So what would a conservative paid leave policy look like? As I’ve said, transparency in the costs is a must. As much as people hate taxes, there are some things they are willing to pay for. To see if this is one of them, we must present the choice honestly, with all the potential pluses and minuses. If it would really cost the average American less than $2 a week, as Bernie promised, many people would sign right up. But we must have all of the facts before we decide.
Another improvement could be reducing the coercive elements present in most progressive plans. The minimum wage, for example, is easy for congressional Democrats to raise, because they bear none of the costs. Instead, they use the law to interpose themselves between employer and employee and dictate workers’ salaries. Similarly, the Americans with Disabilities Act demands businesses upgrade their properties, but fails to provide any funding. The bill passes costs to business owners, whether they can afford it or not.
The unemployment system has no such unfunded mandate. Any tax-funded system has some coercion at its core—people don’t pay taxes out of the goodness of their hearts—but that is a criticism of all government, not just paid maternity leave. This system, at least, adds no new unfunded mandate to further burden employers. All that would be required of them is to hold the employee’s position while she is out, something already required of employers for up to 12 weeks under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Many changes in labor law harm businesses’ profitability, but this proposal leaves them in the same position they currently occupy.
Conservatives could also use the maternity leave program to undo some of the damage done to American families by Great Society anti-poverty programs over the last half-century. Trump’s proposal does not cover paternity leave, but Clinton’s website suggests she thinks men should get time off, too. While short on specifics, she would likely mirror European plans that give fathers and mothers equal leave time.
A conservative plan could limit paternity leave to fathers who are actively involved with their child’s daily life; that is, those who are married to and cohabitating with the child’s mother. Unlike most federal programs, this one could serve as an incentive to marriage. Don’t expect such an idea to find its way into a bill passed by Democrats alone.
Do It For the Right Reasons
Paid maternity leave helps two-income households maintain a more consistent income while having children, something that hasn’t been possible since men stopped being the sole breadwinners. In a year when both political parties are looking at the world with their own shade of nostalgia, that would seem to be reason enough to push the policy: regaining one of the advantages of the old days while keeping the advances of the new. Sounds like a winner!
But that is not what you’ll hear from the Left. Instead, you are likely to hear something like this balderdash from ThinkProgress about the United States being “one of just three [countries] that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave.” The claim is bunk, both on its face and as a reason to change our policies.
People who quote such lines expect us to believe that Papua New Guinea, Oman, and the United States are alone in not letting women stay home from their jobs with pay after giving birth. But just having a statute on the books is not, in many countries, the same as having an enforceable right. Does anyone believe the fate of working mothers is better in Saudi Arabia than in the United States? Or that labor laws of any sort are enforced in Somalia, Syria, or Libya? In many countries, almost no women work; in others, few workers of either sex work within the formal economy. In none of these places are women enjoying time with their babies while still receiving an income.
Even taking out the obvious hyperbole in the statement, we can admit that among nations with the rule of law and a developed economy, America stands out as the only one without paid leave. That may be true, but as your mother told you when all of your friends wanted to do something, it’s not a reason to change the rules. After America’s independence, we were one of only three nations in the world not ruled by a monarch. That was no reason to bring back King George.
Laws are meant to vary from place to place. Even today, the United States stands apart in other ways. We are the only industrialized nation to eschew the metric system, the only one to put a man on the moon, and almost the only one to ban marriage between first cousins. These are all good distinctions, but whether you like them or not, the reason to change them is not that all the other countries are doing it.
Instead, consider the idea on its own merits. Even if you do not support Trump, consider that his plan may contain the kernel of an idea that could help young working families across the country. Clearly, Trump’s plan is not the final word. It lacks details, and the way he proposes to pay for it is a fantasy. But with Trump’s new policy conservatives interested in this issue have a place to start.