Terry McLaughlin: Paid family leave potentially a unifying issue
In the midst of a politically divided America, a surprising area of bipartisan agreement has arisen in the past year — that of paid family leave. The issue has generated enough momentum from both sides of the political spectrum that it may actually become a reality in 2020.
The current cultural environment is in many ways toxic for families, disincentivizing young Americans from having children. Media and advertising promote self-actualization — having the perfect career, access to often expensive leisure time, sexual freedom without personal responsibility. The fertility rate in America has been declining for decades and we are now not having enough babies to even replace ourselves. The Centers for Disease Control reported that in 2018 fewer babies were born than at any time since 1986. So this renewed interest in helping establish families is great news both for parents and society as a whole.
There are various reasons for the decline in the birthrate, but a New York Times poll found that the many young American adults who would like to have more children cited finances as the most significant barrier to that goal. Sixty-four percent of participants said that childcare was too expensive for them to have another child, 44% said they couldn’t afford more children, and almost 40% cited a lack of paid family leave.
Ideally, working families shouldn’t have to choose between taking on debt or caring for a newborn. Today the United States is one of just eight countries, and the only industrialized one, not to have some formalized mechanism for paid family leave. The closest alternative currently available in the United States is the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 which provides unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks to parents who meet certain requirements, without jeopardizing their job security. While this was innovative at its inception, today, when both parents are likely to be working, many cannot afford this time off without income.
In 2016, 50% of Americans who took leave used savings to cover lost wages, roughly 37% of Americans took on debt, and 41% were forced to cut their leave short due to financial shortfalls.
Parental bonding is critical to a newborn’s health and well-being. Studies have demonstrated that paid parental leave is associated with improved health outcomes for children in early elementary school including issues involving healthy weight and ADHD, as well as a reduction in infant mortality rates.
Ivanka Trump, daughter of the president and a senior White House adviser, has made paid family leave her signature issue. In response, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said in May 2019, “The question isn’t whether to expand paid family leave, but how best to achieve it.”
So the big question is, how will we pay for it?
There are currently several proposals on the table. One bill sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is a self-financing, budget-neutral plan that allows parents to draw on their future retirement benefits to take time off for a newborn or adopted child. The plan is entirely voluntary and would not require a tax hike. The disadvantage is that parents who have a greater number of children will likely end up deferring retirement because they will need to work for a longer period of time in order to replace the funds they withdrew.
Another plan proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would function more like Social Security, requiring employers and employees to contribute 0.2% of wages to a fund which could be used for paid family leave. The disadvantage to this plan is that it requires higher taxes.
One plan that appears to sidestep the pitfalls of both of these proposals is a bipartisan plan unveiled in July 2019 by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. Called the Cassidy-Sinema plan, this entirely elective plan would allow parents to borrow up to $5,000 from their child tax credits (currently $2,000 per child per year), and to pay the loan back by receiving a reduced tax credit of $1,500 for the new child for 10 years. This plan does not raise taxes and does not compromise parents’ retirement plans; instead, it allows parents to choose to access the existing child tax benefit right after birth or adoption in order to fund a parental leave.
Cassidy stated “In many cases, the first year of life is the most expensive for a family. This legislation addresses this, focuses resources, and eases financial strain to provide a longer bonding period for the family … We don’t raise taxes, affect Social Security, and there are no mandates on either the family or the employer. This is a common ground solution that can pass Congress and become law.” Sinema added “Our bipartisan bill … represents an important first step, offering parents a new option to finance time off work.”
These are just some of the types of plans under consideration, and they all have one thing in common: they recognize that having children is a socially and culturally valuable decision. There is a whole arsenal of cultural weapons leveled against families today: an ideology of self-actualization, increasing isolation from extended family, mounting mental health challenges, and an economy that often requires two full-time workers in each household.
When we have a chance to support a government policy that bolsters and encourages families, we should take it.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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