Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and first daughter Ivanka Trump are pushing for a paid parental leave plan that is actually worse than the current federal policy ― which is no policy at all. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that offers no paid time off to new mothers.
Under the Rubio-Trump scheme, which is based on a proposal from the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, new parents would fund their parental leave by tapping into their Social Security benefits early.
Parents would get 12 weeks of benefits ― estimated to be about 40 percent of average worker pay ― in exchange for what the Independent Women’s Forum claims would only be six weeks of Social Security retirement benefits down the line.
The plan does not account for anyone who needs to take time off to care for a sick relative or deal with a personal illness.
In a Tweet last week, Rubio admitted that the plan isn’t “perfect,” but it’s better than the status quo.
Paid leave is generally understood to be a policy that would help women, who typically bear the burden of childbearing and rearing. Mothers who get paid leave are more likely to stay in the labor force and are less likely to rely on social programs like food stamps to get by.
But the Rubanka plan would have parents pay for children with their retirement funds ― essentially stealing from their own future well-being. That’s a particularly painful proposition for women. Though they live longer than men, women have less money saved for retirement. Indeed, women on average get $1,154 a month in retirement from Social Security, according to the agency’s data. Men get $1,466.
This is partly because women are more likely to take time out of the labor force to care for children and other family members, working just 75 percent of the years men work.
It’s also thanks to the gender pay gap. Overall, women make 80 cents for every dollar on average a man makes. Mothers face a wider pay gap of 71 cents. If you’re a woman of color, the numbers look even worse.
The plan does not account for a mother (or father) who has several children. The more kids, the bigger the penalty, with each leave period funded by another chunk of retirement benefits. This could effectively discourage people from having kids ― maybe not a great idea in a country with an increasingly aging population and declining birthrate that’s also trying to cut back on immigration.
“With the changes in the labor force and potentially in immigration, we need to be encouraging people to have kids,” said Jeff Hayes, program director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “They’re the workforce of tomorrow.”
This could effectively discourage people from having kids -- maybe not a great idea in a country with an increasingly aging population and declining birthrate that’s also trying to cut back on immigration.
Rubio and Trump haven’t floated a written policy. What we know about the workings of the scheme comes from the Independent Women’s Forum paper, which was published last month.
The Independent Women’s Forum was founded in 1991 by women who defended the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexually harassing Anita Hill. These days, the group is busy backing President Donald Trump, decrying the #MeToo movement, promoting the idea that raising the minimum wage would harm women and downplaying the role that discrimination plays in the gender pay gap.
The group touts the plan as a “short deferral” of benefits. In practice, that’s not how it would work, says Kathleen Romig, who worked for years as an analyst at the Social Security Administration.
The plan’s backers suggest that a person applying for Social Security benefits would just have to wait six more weeks to collect, Romig explained. In reality, the recipient would receive a lower benefit, she said.
“It’s cutting your benefit for the rest of your life,” said Romig, who is now a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Until the policy can be thoroughly analyzed, it’s not totally clear how much that reduction would actually be, she said. However, she expressed disbelief that it would only be the equivalent of six weeks’ pay. “We can’t know how much it’ll cost until we get an official cost from the scorekeepers,” Romig said, noting the actuarial complexity of such an undertaking.
Perhaps most alarming: The very idea of using Social Security funds as a private piggy bank threatens to destabilize the very notion of a social insurance program.
“If we start treating Social Security, really the bedrock of financial security for elderly people, as just another asset to tap, we are imperiling people’s financial security,” Romig said.
That may be an intentional part of the Independent Women’s Forum plan. In a piece written for the conservative publication The Federalist, the group’s managing director, Carrie Lukas, writes that a policy like this could have the added “benefit” of changing Americans’ thinking about Social Security as a bedrock benefit that cannot be changed.
“Indeed, encouraging people to think about Social Security’s assets as if those benefits are their property for use now or at retirement could even encourage people to want to move more in that direction and transform the current pay-as-you-go system into one that pre-funds future benefits and with assets that belong to individuals,” Lukas writes. She says that many Americans don’t want that much money when they’re older ― since they need it now ― and are happy to work longer into old age.
But a key part of Social Security is keeping those retirement benefits untapped ― even when young Americans desperately do need money ― thus staving off terrifying poverty for the nation’s elderly.
The proposal comes at a time of enormous bipartisan support for paid leave, traditionally a more liberal policy darling. Eighty-two percent of Americans support giving mothers paid leave following the arrival of a child, according to a Pew survey last year. Conservative groups are increasingly in favor of doing something for parents.
It’s cutting your benefit for the rest of your life. Kathleen Romig, former Social Security Administration analyst
Yet even the president isn’t buying the Rubanka plan. He has put a paid family leave proposal in his budget plan, released Monday. However, it’s structured differently from his daughter’s. Under his plan, the U.S. would offer six weeks of family leave, paid for with unemployment insurance.
But don’t get too excited: It’s a dubious policy he’s suggested before, without taking any action to move it forward.
“It’s understandable that people have seen how popular family leave is and want to get out in front of it,” said Ellen Bravo, co-director of the paid family leave advocacy group Family Values @ Work. “But [Rubio’s plan] is a step in the wrong direction.”
Advocates like Bravo have been fighting for paid leave since the 1993 passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides 12 weeks unpaid leave for some employees at large companies. It’s beneficial to wait a little longer for the right solution, she said.
Bravo and others support a different proposal on family leave: The Family Act, sponsored by Democrats in the House and Senate, which would pay for leave through a small payroll tax levied on employers and employees.
“We’re not gonna get many bites of this apple,” she said. “Let’s make sure the one we get has some nutrition in it.”