Even Conservatives Now Admit The U.S. Needs Paid Family Leave

A right-wing think tank offers up a surprising new proposal.
Sally Anscombe via Getty Images

Even as we endure one of the ugliest presidential elections in U.S. history, something remarkably positive is happening in politics. The left and right are coming together around an issue that once seemed solely the province of progressives and feminists: paid parental leave.

The latest sign of this growing consensus came on Monday when a Republican-backed think tank, the American Action Forum, offered up a new idea for how the U.S. could implement paid maternity, paternity and caregiver leave.

More surprising, the new plan is structured like an entitlement ― a government benefit for lower-income Americans of the sort that small-government, deficit conscious conservatives typically detest.

Progressive groups hailed the new idea as a sign the issue was gaining wide traction, even as they emphasized it didn’t go far enough in covering middle-class workers.

“We’re very encouraged and welcome the discussion the proposal initiates,” said Judith Lichtman, a senior adviser at the National Partnership for Women & Families. “[Paid leave] is a political and policy imperative that leaders have to address whatever their ideological bent.”

The Atlantic, which first reported the proposal, called it “a significant moment in the debate over paid family leave.”

Authored by Ben Gitis, the forum’s director of labor market policy, the plan offers up to 12 weeks of paid leave to the working poor and is modeled on the already successful earned income tax credit, which helps lift millions out of poverty. Gitis limits its availability to those making under $28,000. The most you could get for taking time off is $3,359.

“I think [paid leave] could be something that transcends the aisle but it’s a question of how to get there,” Gitis told The Huffington Post, emphasizing that his plan more than any other is aimed specifically at the most needy workers.

Gitis isn’t the first conservative with a plan for paid leave. Over the past year or so, the issue has increasingly come up on the right, as polls have shown that a majority of Americans would support such a benefit. Fifty-five percent of Republicans surveyed by the Associated Press last year said they supported paid time off for workers, compared with 67 percent overall and 82 percent of Democrats.

Republicans have floated a tax credit, via the Strong Families Act, for businesses that offer leave. Marco Rubio talked up a similar plan when he was running his failed campaign for president. Ivanka Trump noted her father’s support for paid leave at the Republican convention, but the Republican nominee has not addressed it. Other Republicans in Congress have floated bills that would let workers use overtime to fund their paid leave.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is one of the sponsors of the Family Act, which provide for paid family leave via a payroll tax.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is one of the sponsors of the Family Act, which provide for paid family leave via a payroll tax.

Gitis says the current proposals on the right would be inadequate or ineffective. He touts his proposal’s low cost, but he does not specify how the U.S. would pay for such a benefit. He also leaves open the possibility that it could be broadened to include more workers.

“We just put the idea out there and see what people think,” he said, adding that the group has sent its proposal out to people on the Hill but hasn’t heard much back yet.

Gitis’ group bills itself as center-right, but its hardcore Republican bonafides are clear: Founded by former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and GOP donor Fred Malek, who runs a private equity firm and has advised or worked for several GOP presidents, including Ronald Reagan. The forum is run by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former economic policy adviser to George W. Bush and former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Gitis himself has previously authored papers arguing that unions are bad for economic growth and that increasing the minimum wage leads to job loss ― positions more common on the GOP side.

The United States is the only developed country in the world that does not have guaranteed paid maternity leave; instead, federal law offers 12 weeks unpaid time off for employees at companies with 50 or more workers.

The lack of paid leave leads many women to return to work just a few weeks after giving birth or to simply leave the workforce. Lack of leave contributes to the stubborn gender pay gap. Researchers have found women who take little leave are at higher risk for maternal depression, which has devastating effects for mothers and children.

On the left and right there are a few proposals on how to fix this. The Family Act ― a bill floated by Congressional Democrats that’s currently stalled out ― would provide for leave through a small payroll tax paid for by workers and employers. It’s supported by Lichtman’s group, among other progressive groups.

Right now only 12 percent of workers in the United States have access to paid leave through their employer ― and most of those workers hold higher-paying jobs. Over the past couple of years, more and more elite U.S. companies have been stepping up and giving more paid leave to their workers, including Facebook, Netflix, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America.

Gitis emphasized that his plan was intended to help those struggling at the bottom, for whom a pregnancy or a family member’s illness can have a devastating financial impact. About 9 percent of workers who take time off to care for a family member end up on public assistance, according to Labor Department data.

If you’re a full-time worker earning the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, you’d get $3,359 for leave under Gitis’ plan. That’s $1,000 more than that worker would get under the Family Act. Raising the minimum wage would seem to put far more money in these workers’ pockets. However, Gitis said this wouldn’t necessarily help workers who need leave, arguing that it could endanger their jobs and that the rise in pay wouldn’t help when they took time away from work.

He also noted that his plan ― which targets far fewer people ― would cost between $2.7 billion and $31.6 billion per year. The Family Act, he said, could cost at least $85 billion; the National Partnership for Women disputes that number, saying Gitis is using the wrong factors for his estimate. The group says its benefit would cost about $26 billion, entirely funded by the payroll tax.

“The Family Act is intended for everyone. This is more a low-income assistance program,” Gitis said.

Conservative groups contacted by The Atlantic were quick to dismiss the proposal. “This is social engineering through the tax code,” Andy Roth, of the ultra-conservative Club for Growth, told the publication. He said that paid leave should be left up to the states.

A few states already have paid family leave. Most recently, New York passed a law that would provide workers with 12 weeks paid time off, and it’s set to take effect in January 2017.

Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.) seemed more open to the possibility ― though she didn’t endorse it, she told The Atlantic: “Proposals like AAF’s open the door to new conversations.”

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