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Americans Want A Welfare State, So Paid Leave Should Be Done The Least Stupid Way


Last week, Republican senators Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah proposed the CRADLE Act, a piece of legislation designed to address paid family leave. According to its authors, the plan is “budget neutral and flexible for parents who choose to opt in,” and would “enable parents to stay home with their newborns without creating a massive mandated government program.”

New parents are, at present, guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA). Companies are required to hold their jobs open for them. That’s something, but unpaid leave is a difficult choice for many Americans whose budgets are already squeezed and whose savings are minimal. The CRADLE Act would make that burden lighter.

The plan, inspired by a proposal from Kristen Shapiro of the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF,) is straightforward in its application. New parents would be permitted to draw up to three months of Social Security payments equivalent to what they would get if they had just reached retirement age.

The budget-neutral piece comes later: the person’s eligibility to collect Social Security would be pushed back by twice as much time she took for leave. Thus, rather than creating a separate benefit, the CRADLE Act shifts an existing benefit in time.

Americans Support the Welfare State

The political impetus behind this is clear: Paid maternity leave is extremely popular. A 2017 Pew study found that 82 percent of Americans thought women should get paid maternity leave, and 69 percent thought fathers should be entitled to such a benefit, too. That is an increase over a 2015 YouGov survey finding that 69 percent of Americans thought employers should be required to offer women paid leave after the birth of a child, with only 19 percent opposed.

Small government conservatives naturally fear making common cause with the welfare state, but facing a 50 percent margin against them in popular opinion, it might be time to abandon outright opposition. The rise of President Trump in the Republican Party has shown that many conservative voters are not as interested in reducing government as we might want to believe. While most would still like government to be smaller and taxes to be lower, cutting programs is not the only thing on their minds.

Vast swaths of the middle class feel increasingly left behind as jobs and prosperity have drained out of their communities and into the wealthy coastal cities. Two-income households are increasing, yet our labor system fails to take childbearing into account even as mothers stay in the workplace. Investment bankers and software engineers get lucrative pay packages thrown at them, including paid maternity and paternity leave, while the rest of the country increasingly is told to do more with less. Is it any wonder birth rates are declining?

As George Will wrote in his 1983 book, “Statecraft as Soulcraft”: “conservatives need ways to make the welfare state more compatible with conservative governmental values, and to make to more affirmative of conservative social values.” Republicans should consider developing a fair solution to something most Americans see as a serious problem. True libertarians make up a vanishingly small segment of the American electorate. With the people crying out for government benefits, Republicans need a more coherent policy on the welfare state than simply “abolish it.”

Do It Right or the Left Will Do It Wrong

One of the laziest progressive arguments for action is to say “It’s 2019!” and insist the passage of time mandates whatever sort of action the speaker wants. This fallacy—you might call it argumentum ad calendarium—should never be the basis for policy changes. If something is true in one time, it is also true in another and should be justified on its own merits. But neither can we completely ignore the facts of the situation, which include the acceptance of changes that have transpired in government.

In 1919, saying no to every proposal like this made political sense, since that largely tracked a status quo that many Americans still believed in. But in 2019, some of these programs are extremely popular. That is not a change in their logic, but it is a change in the electoral facts. When only 3 percent of Democrats and just 10 percent of Republicans want to reduce spending on Social Security, the question politicians will debate is not whether to have it, but how to make it work best. If conservatives don’t implement our vision of this program, you can bet that progressives will impose theirs as soon as they get the chance.

So the argument is not between whether we will have paid leave. The policy is coming, and the argument will be over which version of it we will get. That creates not only a question of which party gets the credit for doing something popular, but also a question of who will do it right. Democrats will not care about making it budget-neutral, nor will they care about imposing additional burdens on employers. They will not even object to creating a whole new program with its own bureaucratic requirements, with many more employees to administer them.

Small changes to the proposed CRADLE Act would make it a better fit for a conservative vision of America. In her piece last week, Joy Pullmann noted the damage done by Great Society welfare programs to the traditional family: “When taxpayers pay for what should be individual and family responsibilities, they make it easier for families to choose disintegration rather than faithfulness.”

That is clearly true. But it does not have to be true of all programs. The current welfare state developed through choices the left made that at best ignored the importance of family life, and at worst actively undermined it. The CRADLE Act partly falls into this trap, and is essentially neutral on the status of the family.

That is a problem. Refusing to endorse any particular vision of how families should be constructed is an endorsement of the status quo. And the status quo for the American family is decline, with less marriage leading to greater poverty and weakening entire communities.

As Robert Verbruggen noted at National Review last year, “20 percent of U.S. children lived in poverty in 2015, including 43 percent of those living in single-mother households but only 10 percent of those in married-couple households.” Welfare programs that give more money to single parents not only destroy the financial incentive to marry, but actively work against formation of traditional families, trapping many children in a cycle of poverty.

The CRADLE Act moves a bit in the opposite direction, requiring that any parent who wishes to claim the benefit must “maintain the same principle place of abode as such child for more than one-half of the 12-month period subsequent to the birth or adoption of such child.” It could go even further, and require that any father claiming the benefit be both cohabiting with and married to the child’s mother. That would be good for the kids and demonstrate a commitment to the role of marriage in reducing poverty.

More Personal Control, Lower Deficits

The CRADLE Act does not introduce runaway welfare spending the way that Obamacare and other progressive policies have done. Ernst, Lee, and the IWF all call their idea revenue-neutral. In fact, it could end up being slightly revenue-positive.

Social Security distributions are based on a person’s average earnings over the worker’s top 35 years (or fewer, if applicable) as adjusted for inflation. Given that most people earn more toward the end of their careers, the benefit “borrowed” at the age of 30 or 35 is likely to be less than the one the person would have taken at 65 or 70. (Also, the delay in retirement would be twice as long as the maternity benefit.) That means that the worker will work more in her high-earning years than she otherwise would have. The result is people earning more money over their lifetimes and the government paying out less.

That sounds like something the left would object to, and some have already savaged the proposal in the usual places. Part of their objection comes from fear of losing a popular issue, even though they failed to enact their ideas for paid leave when they controlled the presidency and Congress from 2009 to 2011. But part of the left’s ire is also against the bill’s personal responsibility angle, which pays for benefits without raising taxes or deficit spending. In this, it is effectively a form of savings.

Borrowing a benefit when you need it and paying it back when you can better afford it is not a new idea. It fits into the “permanent income hypothesis” first proposed by economist (and libertarian folk hero) Milton Friedman. The idea is that people have some sense of how much money they will earn in a lifetime, and that they attempt to “smooth out” their consumption by saving during times of plenty and “unsaving” by borrowing or spending savings during times when finances are more strained.

We do this all the time with mortgages and student loans, acquiring assets and credentials when we need them and paying them off when we can afford it. The CRADLE Act applies Friedman’s logic to the welfare state, and it makes sense for the same reasons. Ernst and Lee would give new parents the power to make judgement about how best to use the government programs they paid into through taxes on their income.

This increases people’s control over their entitlement benefits and their own lives. Added to the neutral-to-positive budget impact and the pro-family eligibility requirements, the CRADLE Act makes for a decidedly conservative plan. It would help American families navigate the increasingly necessary two-income lifestyle, equalizing the rewards from earned work without resorting to more taxes or more deficit spending. It’s a program every pro-family conservative should be proud to support.