For the third year in a row, the Trump administration is floating a paid parental leave proposal that is short on details and long on problems ― and just the latest symbol of how little respect this White House has for women and families.
The 2020 budget, unveiled Monday, includes a provision ― really more of a suggestion ― for six weeks of paid time off for mothers and fathers after the arrival of a child by birth or adoption. This wouldn’t be a federally administered plan. Instead it would be left up to the states to decide how to make paid leave work by using their existing unemployment insurance programs.
“This proposal is just an empty shell,” Kathleen Romig, a senior policy analyst at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Just saying, ‘Hey, states, you figure this out.’” When an administration proposes a new policy like this, they usually load up on details to make it clear how it would work, she said. But not the Trump administration. “This is very atypical.”
The inclusion of paid leave in the budget is more of a signal of its rising popularity. Republican Sens. Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Mike Lee (Utah) are expected to unveil a paid parental leave plan on Tuesday, modeled on one proposed last year by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Rubio proposed that parents borrow from their future Social Security retirement benefits to fund partially paid time off after a baby arrives. That plan comes with its own set of problems, as HuffPost previously reported. Borrowing from Social Security would not only weaken the inviolability of the system but also disproportionately hurt women, who already get lower retirement benefits.
The United States is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t mandate that employers offer paid time off to new parents. But it’s desperately needed. The nation’s birthrate is at a record low, partly because young workers don’t want to take the economic risk of having a child. The percentage of women participating in the workforce is lagging other countries’ rates, in part because of the lack of supportive policies. Parental leave offers invaluable health benefits to parents and babies, including a lower mortality rate for infants.
Trump is the first president to include a parental leave mandate in a budget. However, the first time he floated the idea, he was criticized for including only new birth mothers; he has responded by adding fathers and adoptive parents as recipients.
Yet the credit the president would normally get for setting such a precedent is wiped out by a weak policy. And it is part of a Dickensian budget that would hurt parents and children in myriad other ways — cutting $1.9 trillion from the social safety net; slashing programs that benefit children, like Head Start and Food Stamps; and trimming disability benefits, which are a lifesaver for parents who can’t work.
The 2020 budget also would put the ax to climate change research.
Though the budget proposes a one-time child care grant of $1 billion ― pushed by first daughter and senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump ― that comes with strings like reducing regulations on day care providers.
In other words, parents get the promise of six weeks off in exchange for diminished benefits over their child’s life, plus a wrecked planet for when the kids are grown up.
“You can’t carve up the needs that families have,” said Vicki Shabo, a vice president at the National Partnership for Women & Families and an expert on paid family and medical leave, noting the other social programs that the budget would cut.
The issues with the White House’s fragment of a parental leave policy take even longer to lay out than the proposal itself in the budget.
First, the plan, as outlined, would leave out about 75 percent of the people who currently take time off under the federal government’s unpaid leave policy ― those who need time off from work to handle a serious personal health issue or care for a sick family member.
Second, the time off on offer is only half of what most experts say is the bare minimum that new parents need to bond with a baby.
Third and possibly most problematic, attaching paid parental leave to unemployment insurance would be a mess: States are already strapped for cash to fund the meager unemployment benefits on offer. On average, unemployment benefits replace 34 percent of workers’ wages. That’s hardly enough to fund one’s parental leave.
Further, the requirements for unemployment insurance are fairly strict and already tend to favor men, who are more likely to work consistently full time and therefore get benefits. Women would have a harder time accessing those funds.
The Trump proposal wouldn’t give states extra money to dole out parental benefits. The money allocated in the budget would help with just administrative costs, Romig said. The states would have to raise taxes or slash existing unemployment benefits ― pitting new parents against the newly unemployed.
“In terms of a national conversation and awareness on both sides of the aisle, it’s good there is a marker,” said Shabo. “But the specifics of this proposal or any proposal that excludes some of the most important reasons people need access to leave or doesn’t include adequate wage replacement isn’t something that anyone needs.”
She pointed out perhaps the ultimate absurdity of efforts to help families with paid leave coming from a White House that has made a policy of separating parents and children at the border ― ripping babies out of mothers’ arms. “It’s pretty disingenuous,” she said.