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How Marco Rubio’s Plan For Family Leave Could Help Save Social Security


Amelia Irvine criticized Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s paid family leave plan in The Federalist on Thursday. Her criticism generally missed the mark, although some of her concerns about the solvency of Social Security are valid.

Earlier this month, Rubio and Republican Rep. Ann Wagner introduced the Economic Security for New Parents Act, legislation which would create a much-needed option for paid family leave. After the birth or adoption of a child, new parents would be allowed to pull forward a portion of their own contributions to Social Security to use for at least two months of paid leave, delaying the eventual date at which they begin receiving Social Security upon retirement by a corresponding amount of time.

The Republican Alternative for Paid Family Leave

This move comes just as Democrats are ramping up support for their own paid family leave proposals ahead of the midterm elections. Last year, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill that would raise taxes and create a brand new entitlement program. These types of big government programs place an extra burden on employers and employees and end up hurting the very people they claim to support.

Given these circumstances, Rubio and Wagner were wise to understand that Republicans needed to adopt their own paid family leave plan. And let’s be clear: The New Parents Act is a smart proposal. It’s not a tax increase. It’s not a new entitlement. Its funding mechanism is deficit neutral in the long run.

But most importantly, the New Parents Act is a conservative, pro-family solution to a real problem — it lessens the financial burden on working parents of having children and makes it easier for them to return to the workforce (and continue contributing to Social Security) without losing traction in their careers.

Why New Parents Need the New Parents Act

Both our workforce and our culture have changed in significant ways since Social Security was enacted in 1935. Women now make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce — many by choice, but many also by financial necessity. As the cost of living goes up, especially in urban areas, families often need two incomes to make ends meet — a problem exacerbated by the stagnation of the real median household wage over the last two decades. This can unfortunately lead to a catch-22, as when parents decide to welcome a child into the world, they are met with the staggering costs of child care that follow from both being gone at work.

Imagine being a working class mom with a second child on the way. You make $12 an hour at your job at a local coffee shop. While the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees you at least 12 weeks of unpaid leave without losing your job, you have a difficult financial decision in the short-term: How do you pay for your medical bills, provide for your family’s living expenses, AND provide for the baby?

Financial difficulties aren’t the only problem, however. In recent years, powerful social incentives have also developed for potential parents to delay having children — or avoid it altogether. Report after report has suggested that younger generations of Americans feel more pressure to succeed than their forbearers, likely leading many young adults to place professional goals ahead of personal ones which have traditionally taken precedence, namely getting married and starting a family.

It’s little surprise then that our culture has largely shifted away from one in which marriage and child rearing are the norm. Confronted with financial challenges, as well as ever increasing social pressure to succeed professionally, my generation is choosing dogs, cats, and even plants over children at a shocking rate.

Just this last May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the U.S. fertility rate had dropped for the second year in a row, hitting a record low of 60.2 births per 1,000 women aged 15-44. In 2017, the CDC announced that the fertility rate hit 1.76 births per woman, far below the replacement rate of 2.1 births necessary to keep the population at a stable level. This poses a serious long-term problem for our country, one that needs to be addressed if future generations of Americans hope to enjoy the same opportunities that we do.

The Act Strengthens Social Security in the Long Run

This brings us to Social Security. Much of the concern from both liberals and conservatives about the New Parents Act centers around its funding mechanism: allowing new parents to dip into Social Security now in exchange for delaying their retirement payout later. In Irvine wrote in her piece last week that the proposal would “hurt families by worsening the program’s already dire financial problems.”

Irvine is right to say that Social Security is on track to insolvency, but she is incorrect to suggest the New Parents Act makes that insolvency worse. The Rubio-Wagner bill is long-term liability neutral, meaning that the total amount owed to recipients by Social Security will not change if new parents draw from their retirement early. The concern about front-loading some of the liability only makes sense if you assume Congress would ever let Social Security default, a scenario that would destroy the U.S. government’s “full faith and credit” and lead to a global financial crisis. That’s just not going to happen.

The only way to fix Social Security without significant, unpopular structural changes is to address economic growth and population growth. The Rubio-Wagner bill tackles both by encouraging parents to keep working and also by making it easier for them to have children. By easing new parents’ financial anxiety and giving them an economically viable way to grow their families, the New Parents Act will help support tomorrow’s retirees.

Perhaps more importantly, however, this legislation sends a clear message that having children is a critical social good, one which should not be set against economic productivity or professional achievement. In response to a social environment which increasingly values independence more highly than the sacrifice involved in raising a family, it is crucial that conservatives support and encourage strong families through policy as well as culture.

While there is, of course, no single solution to this problem, Rubio’s proposal represents a hopeful movement toward articulating a much larger, pro-family political agenda. Rather than complain on the sidelines, it’s time more conservatives join in this worthy and necessary endeavor.