Usually Sen. Mike Lee is one of the very few politicians standing against the growing assumption that it’s government’s job to manage every aspect of private life. Not this time. He and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst have reintroduced a plan for government to fund up to three months of paid maternity leave by issuing a few Social Security checks 30-40 years early.
The proposal is called — I kid you not — the CRADLE Act. As in, cradle to grave welfare state. But all the other “advanced” countries are forcing taxpayers to shoulder families’ responsibilities for them, so we should too, right? That’s the tired leftist line a beaming Ernst fed CBS on Wednesday. It completely ignores that those economies and national fertility rates are worse than ours. Apparently her mother never told her anything about the wise course of action when everyone else is jumping off a cliff.
Social Security’s old-age program has already weakened the bond between old and young and reduced America’s fertility rates, which in turn endangers our nation’s economic growth, assimilation processes, and trillions in unfunded welfare liabilities. Increasing its scope yet again to finance an extremely brief postpartum work break will have other highly negative consequences for children, taxpayers, and society at large. Here are eleven.
1. Welfare Programs Incentivize Family Disintegration
This would mark another expansion in welfare categories provided through the bankrupt Social Security entitlement. Its overseeing agency’s domain has already been expanded six times since Social Security began in 1935, to cover Medicare, disability, family health insurance, and more. Each of those programs has, once begun, also been repeatedly expanded.
The federal government already offers at least 45 programs subsidizing non-parent care for very young children. While the number and amount of federal early childhood programs and overall welfare subsidies have skyrocketed in the past century, so has the percentage of non-married mothers and fathers that such programs enable. When taxpayers pay for what should be individual and family responsibilities, they make it easier for families to choose disintegration rather than faithfulness.
That in turn creates a demand for more welfare, which fuels more breakdown. It’s a vicious cycle, and it needs to be reversed, not accelerated.
2. Ignores How Government Fuels This Problem
Just like many millennials and their boomer parents, the American people have a codependent relationship with their government. The best way to fix a codependent relationship is either to end it or to re-establish some firm boundaries.
Another significant government-fueled factor creating a demand for this kind of program, besides the welfare state that enables family disintegration, is federal involvement with higher education. One of the reasons young couples starting out have financial insecurity is their student loans. Research has consistently shown that government subsidies have directly fueled college cost inflation to the point that it’s now difficult to work one’s way through college and graduate with little or no debt like our parents did.
It still can be done, and young adults and their families are responsible for making foolish financial choices about whether and how they go to college, but government is also to blame. Besides federal subsidies inflating college costs, just like this paid leave program those subsidies’ very existence communicates to the public what their priorities should be. That has damaged workforce and vocational training, which can lead to wonderful, high-paying careers with no debt loads.
Any serious attempt to address the conditions that lead childbearing couples to demand paid leave must address not only the welfare state’s contributions to family breakdown but also its contributions to weak young adult finances.
3. Another Spend Now, Pay Later Boondoggle
This whole scheme assumes, of course, that Social Security checks will materialize when today’s parents retire in 30-40 years. Two-thirds of child-bearing-age Americans think that’s doubtful and, considering our old-age entitlements’ epic funding crater, they’re not stupid to be cynical, and neither are taxpayers who won’t have kids.
Despite Lee and Ernst’s talking points about how this is people using “their” Social Security benefits, the truth is that no working person currently has any Social Security benefits stored up on her behalf. Our Social Security taxes largely go right out the door in checks to current seniors, and Congress is not only under no obligation to keep Social Security as-is, our nation’s looming bankruptcy makes untouched benefits utterly impossible to offer today’s workers.
Expanding Social Security to postpartum parents merely creates another constituency opposed to reforming, reducing, and relinquishing this failed New Deal program. That’s the opposite of what we need.
Economist Veronique de Rugy also asks, “[Wh]at happens if someone uses the paid-leave benefit and then decides to stay home to raise the children or becomes disabled? Who will work longer to pay for the benefits that are used?” Good question.
This is just another “spend money now and make the next generation work out how to pay for the bill” scheme using classic congressional hocus pocus. It’s unbelievably stupid to postpone a tab for 30-40 years, during which Social Security’s trust fund will have emptied and trillions in unfunded welfare liabilities we have no plan to pay for will also have come due. If you believe this is going to “pay for itself” as promised, I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Syria.
4. Transfer Responsibility from Families to Taxpayers
It is simply unjust to force taxpayers to pay mothers for not working briefly before jetting back into paid employment right after the post-birth bleeding has stopped. It is the mother and father of that child’s responsibility to provide for the child they created together, and if they need help with that, it is their immediate family’s responsibility to provide it. It is not random taxpayers’ duty to send checks to strangers under threat of government force.
Government provisions for private family needs such as caring for a small child erode relations’ and neighbors’ sense of duty and provision of such services. Children are families’ responsibility, not taxpayers.’ Perhaps a sense of this is why Cato polling found higher percentages of Americans — 78 percent, including 82 percent of Democrats — support tax-advantaged family leave savings accounts as opposed to government-provided or -mandated programs, especially if taxpayers had to make tradeoffs to fund the latter.
5. Erode Fathers’ Commitment to Their Own Kids
Babies don’t generate spontaneously. They are made by a man and a woman together, and they are owed provision from that same man and woman. There is simply no other way to have a well-functioning society. All the other mothers and fathers owe provision to their own children, and prudent families should not be plundered to subsidize imprudent families.
Americans need to be held more responsible for their own actions and families, not less. Our nation is experiencing a crisis of loneliness and loss of purpose, felt perhaps most acutely by the literally suicidal working-class men who have been deprived (and have deprived themselves) of meaning in life through a commitment to providing for their families.
Perhaps nowhere is the need for fathers more obvious than in the case of a postpartum mother and helpless newborn, who needs and deserves majority-mother care for at least the first three to five years of life, not a pitiful three months. The only way that child gets her needs truly met is if daddy steps up and makes it possible for mom to focus on baby.
Government can spend (and already is spending) the next generation into oblivion by sending checks, but checks don’t kiss mom pink or take the baby for a nighttime walk so mom can get a break, and checks don’t change diapers, fix cribs and tricycles, play tickle games, warm up the car on cold mornings, or read picture books. Money is the least of a child’s needs, and the easiest thing in the world to get in the world’s best economy, so long as you’re willing to work.
Children need their own biological fathers married to their own biological mothers and committed to personally keeping that family safely afloat through hell or high water. Three months of living expenses is nowhere close to hell or high water. It’s far less than the bare minimum a society should be able to expect adults to provide for their infants.
This is the expectation families need all societal leaders and our laws to communicate, not the implicit message that neither planning ahead nor fathers are necessary, because some mythical taxpayers somewhere will pick up everybody’s slack. America’s men have heard this demoralizing and demasculating message loud and clear, accompanied by plenty of other people’s cash, and they have responded by dropping out of the workforce and underperforming academically and economically in record numbers. We get more of what we subsidize. Should we really be increasing our family replacement spending?
6. Attaches Mothers to the Workforce Instead of Their Children
Bringing a child into the world changes a woman’s entire life. There is no going back. Funding up to three months of paid leave lies to America’s women that a baby is just a little pit stop in the race of life. Drive into the hospital, squeeze out the baby, go home for a few weeks, find yourself a daycare for your three-month-old, then go back to work like nothing ever happened except now you have more bills and cuter pictures to post on Facebook. This is not good for families or kids.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew Biggs approvingly cites statistics from California’s paid leave that actually undermine the case for it: “work hours for mothers who had paid leave were 10 to 17 percent higher than before paid leave was instituted…Paid parental leave appears to increase job retention among working women who have kids.”
Look, I’ve been a working mother all throughout having our currently five kids. I am not against mothers working by any means. But I am against government encouraging women to treat paid employment as if it is more important than raising the next generation. Even the very terms we use do this — “leave,” like a woman’s most important mission in life ought to be producing widgets for strangers rather than contributing to the nation’s long-term happiness by raising a flourishing family, as if a mother needs to get permission to suspend her “duty to the state” to produce taxable products at a frenzied pace.
As I show in my next item, acting in line with this attitude is yet another method of artificially inflating today’s GDP at the expense of the nation’s long-term health. The point of families is not to sustain the economy, the point of an economy is to sustain families. We provide the berth for motherhood by having a genuinely strong economy with rising wages for the babymaker who doesn’t give birth, not one built on fake money, unfathomable government debt, and unfunded welfare promises.
“Paid leave” is just a leaky patch on a ship rapidly taking on water. We need to haul this sucker out of the water and do major repairs instead, or we’re all going to drown.
7. Three Months Is Nowhere Near Enough
Speaking of leaky patches on major problems, the bill’s maximum paid leave subsidy is three months. Presumably the authors think more is unaffordable or are not disclosing plans for expanding this program in the future, which is obviously unaffordable even to a Congress that keeps doing jack about the size of our national debt.
The bill’s accompanying press documents fall all over themselves exclaiming how much babies need bonding and maternal care. It is absolutely true that research finds maternal presence for a child to be crucial to his happiness and success. It is also absolutely true that the critical period for maternal presence is not the first three months, but at least the first three years (often lengthened to four or five years depending on the study longevity).
Here’s another AEI research paper: “A growing body of developmental science underscores that the foundation laid in the 60 months from birth through age 4 is fundamental to all future learning and success.” And what do little children need during these fundamental years? Their mother to be not away from them for full-time work, which this bill would explicitly encourage, as noted above.
Here’s an Institute for Family Studies summary of a study that “provides the most comprehensive picture we have about day care in the lives of American children”: “Even after controlling for day care quality, socioeconomic background and parenting quality, extensive hours in day care early in life predicted negative behavioral outcomes throughout childhood and into adolescence… Extensive non-maternal care during a child’s first year (more than 30 hours [per week]) predicted significantly lower scores on all eight cognitive outcomes included in the NICHD study at age four and a half and in first grade” (itals original, bold mine).
In other words, we’d be spending $5 billion (this bill’s estimated upfront cost) for Republicans and Democrats to look like they’re doing something about needy newborns. It’s vote pandering, not genuine provision of what children truly need. That’s because it’s impossible for government programs to provide what children truly need. Only their own mother and father can.
8. Mother Absence Increases Child Depression, Illness, Misbehavior, and Later Crime
As I’ve noted elsewhere (and here, here, here), a fountain of research on how having people other than their mothers care for small children has rather shocking and relatively little known negative effects. Here’s more about what the daycare study above found, for example, from the same IFS summary:
But by age 15, extensive hours before age four and a half in any type of ‘nonrelative’ care predicted problem behaviors, including risk-taking behaviors such as alcohol, tobacco, and drug use, stealing or harming property, as well as impulsivity in participating in unsafe activities… the statistical effect size of the relationship between day care hours and caregiver reports of behavioral problems at age four and a half was so strong that it was comparable to the effect of poverty. Importantly, these statistical effects did not diminish as children aged. The statistical effects linking day care hours with problem behaviors at age four and a half were nearly the same as the statistical effects at age 15. And these links did not differ for children from high socioeconomic backgrounds compared to low socioeconomic backgrounds. Nor did they differ for girls compared to boys, though previous studies had suggested girls would fare better.
Here is another summary of several studies done on a universal child care program instituted in Quebec in the 1990s:
Economists, using state-of-the-art econometric approaches and comparing children in Quebec with those from other provinces, documented numerous negative effects of the universal child care program. Notably, compared with children growing up in other provinces, those growing up in Quebec proved to be more anxious and aggressive at ages two and three as well as from ages five to nine, while also proving to be more hyperactive at these latter ages. Moreover, children in Quebec with increased child care access later had worse health, lower life satisfaction, and higher crime rates than other children.
Just as notable as these longer-term findings are those from an earlier report on the Quebec policy, which revealed that negative effects of the program were most evident among children who enrolled in care at earlier ages. [emphasis added]
Why on earth would we enable care situations for children that have all these terrible consequences? The leave mothers need to be taking after creating a baby is of traditional 9-5 employers, not of their babies. And, before everyone starts whining about the hard cases to me, we already have myriad welfare programs to pay for for people who did not prudently plan ahead for childbearing. We don’t need another.
9. Paid Leave Is Not What Working Mothers Really Want
While paid leave polls well as a vote-buying government giveaway, according to an in-depth Cato Institute poll that came out in December, mothers want other things from work opportunities a lot more than they want paid leave. Only about one in ten of both mothers with children younger than three and of children younger than 18 said that paid leave was a priority for them.
Mothers themselves would far prefer more affordable child care and more flexible work opportunities than they would paid leave. So why don’t we allow employers to focus first on what women want rather than what they don’t? The only reason I can think of is female vote buying ahead of a presidential election cycle — i.e. political corruption.
10. Paid Leave Hurts Women’s Careers
In the above-cited poll, author Emily Ekins writes that research also suggests paid leave programs dampen women’s career prospects, both their earnings and likelihood of promotions:
Research has found that government-provided paid leave programs may slow the pace of women’s career trajectories. Studies have found that government-provided paid leave may lead to fewer women getting promoted and becoming managers because they take longer leaves than they otherwise would. Other studies have noted that employers, particularly smaller companies that have difficulty accommodating workers taking leave, may be less willing to hire female employees to begin with. Some argue that American women’s corporate success is due to the fact that the United States does not provide generous family leave policies.
Her polling also found that American support for government paid leave switches to opposition if there are any tradeoffs such as increasing the national deficit, cutting other government spending, damage to women’s career prospects, or the prospect of higher taxes:
11. Incentivizes Employers to Jettison Private Paid Leave
Federalist writer and fellow mother Georgi Boorman said it best, I think, about this potential effect of the bill, in an email to me:
It also discourages people from saving for their own parental leave. This isn’t empowering, it’s another way to become dependent on the government.
Next thing you know, employers will be dropping parental leave right and left, because hey, why fund it if the government will pay up? You could pay a bit higher in wages, but the vast majority of workers will simply spend that on cars or a bigger house or more takeout. They’re not going to save it for parental leave, because they can just withdraw from ‘SS savings!’
Then they will have to change the formula because now solid middle class workers won’t be as likely to have a parental benefit. Then you have another opportunity to expand the entitlement. This is all going to spin out of the realm of ‘fiscal responsibility’ way faster than Lee and Ernst think.
12. Uses Right-Branded Politician to Endorse Unlimited Government
Lee’s participation in advancing this plan is a fabulous public relations coup for the kind of people who believe mothers’ first loyalties ought to be to paid work rather than their families, and can conceive of no natural limits on government action. After all, if the federal government can use taxes to underwrite how families provide for their newborns, what can’t it do?
Lee has a strong track record of rhetorical and political constitutional conservatism, which is why he’s a perfect branding tool to help further the cause of unlimited government under the icon of the opposite. His jump onto this bandwagon is a great way to fool people on the right into also supporting it based on personality rather than substance.
And on the substance, this is an idea that belongs in the dumpster. Want to help families? Get government out of their pocketbooks and require citizens to independently manage their own lives. After all, self-government starts at home. If it doesn’t start there, it can’t happen anywhere else.