The federal paid parental leave policy floated by the Trump administration has plenty of detractors, but both Republicans and Democrats have suggested a willingness to move in the same direction as almost every other developed country on Earth to create a program. To that end, parental leave has started to seem like the last non-partisan issue. Recently the state of Washington adopted a program sponsored by a Republican rep and signed by a Democratic governor. Everyone went home happy. It can be done. But, alas, the era of extreme partisanship means we don’t get to have nice things at a federal level. The conservative Heritage Foundation, that place Steve Bannon said Paul Ryan was “born in a petri dish,” has just debuted an argument against parental leave that feels at once hackneyed and likely to gain traction.
The argument is currently being made by Government Entitlement Research Fellow and mother of five Rachel Greszler, who has a knack for false premises, a borderline romantic relationship with straw men, and an apparent immunity to data. The TL;DR summary goes like this: A federal program would hurt families by encouraging companies to stop offering cadillac paid family leave programs, increasing the household tax burdens, and (this gets confusing, forgive me) discriminating against stay at home parents. The result is an act of wonkism that is both deeply wrong headed and extremely unwonky. Also, dumb.
The best way to understand the piece, which presents something like a rubric for conservative resistance to a new entitlement, is to go through it. This is a bit like strolling through a briar patch so apologies in advance for all those pricked by logical fallacies.
“A 2016 Kaiser survey found that 34 percent of American workers work for firms that offer paid parental leave,” Greszler begins, immediately glossing over the fact that millions don’t have access to such policies. And those that do see policies that are vastly different, uneven and often downright discriminatory to workers.
A recent report from the non-profit Paid Leave for the United States (PL+US) found that 114 million people in the U.S. do not have access to PFL. Additionally, many of the firms that offer leave policies discriminate against fathers, adoptive parents and LGBTQ employees. In their survey of the largest 44 employers in the country, less than a quarter offered paid family leave (PFL) policies to all new parents. Even firms like Starbucks and Amazon, known for their progressive policies, fell short of covering dads and gay employees, respectively.
This is all of no concern to Greszler, who seems to believe that American employees are suffering from an embarrassment of riches when it comes to leave. After all, she points out, there is “informal paid leave through vacation and sick days or short-term disability insurance.” Which suggests that an employee is lucky to have the exquisite luxury of using their compensation in order to do something the American Academy of Pediatric deems essential to the healthy development of a child.
Greszler also argues that “a handful” of states have enacted PFL legislation. States are big, which is perhaps why she considers the three states in the union with PFL policies (Washington, New Jersey and California) to be a handful.
Those states and the businesses that offer PFL “would be crazy to keep their own programs when their residents could get similar benefits for ‘free’ via federal taxpayers,” Greszler argues. The problem with that argument is that states often augment (for better or worse) federal policies to suit their citizens. A national PFL policy would be unlikely to roll back or impede states from improving upon what, for all intents and purposes, is considered to be an anemic and ineffective leave proposal from the current administration.
As far as businesses are concerned, they also have a long history of improving on federal mandates. That’s because they know that in order to compete they need to offer benefits that draw the best employees. By Greszler’s logic, businesses would have capped compensation at the federal minimum wage for all workers as soon as it was enacted. For those businesses that aren’t inclined to offer employees more than what is mandated by federal labor policies (generally in industries that rely on low wage and low skilled labor), federally mandated PFL would mean not having to choose between caring for a child in the first crucial months and losing employment.
And what about ballooning entitlements, cries Greszler, as she appeals to conservative anger and paranoia? After all, look at the bloat and abuse of Social Security Disability.
It’s an interesting exercise to ponder exactly how employees would abuse a federal PFL program. Each scenario is more absurd than the last. Forged birth certificates? Wearing increasingly larger pillows under clothing for nine months? Pretending to raise a baby for the remaining duration of their employment? It seems … implausible.
More plausible is the enormous cost of truly solid PFL policy. There is no doubt it would cost billions. But when buying a car, for instance, the buyer understands that there are benefits to owning it: freedom of movement, ease of transportation to and from work among them, that offset the cost. Grezsler’s argument completely disregards the fact that PFL would have economic benefits that would help to offset the cost of the program.
For instance, In a groundbreaking bipartisan joint-report and proposal for PFL from the American Enterprise (AEI) and Brookings institutes, authors conclude “the benefits of paid leave extend beyond those enjoyed by working parents and their children by promoting increased workforce participation and national economic output.” What could that output look like? Researchers estimate that primarily through the equalization of workforce participation from women and men, a PFL policy could raise GDP by 12 percent.
And that’s not mentioning the connection to health savings thanks to healthier babies due to increased likelihood of breastfeeding and decreased severity and length of childhood sickness. Unfortunately, it would seem Greszler is too busy pandering to conservative rancor to know that the importance of PFL is one of the few ideas that cross political aisles.
Finally, Grezsler launches into her most damaging and ridiculous arguments: the idea that a national PFL policy would somehow hurt stay at home parents because it “would entrench conflicted interests into federal law.” What does she mean by this? “It would pay working parents to stay at home with their new children, but not stay-at-home parents who do the same thing,” she explains.
Based on this argument, one might think there is an army of stay-at-home parents worried about and fighting against PFL. That is simply stupid. If anything, PFL would benefit a stay-at-home parent by allowing both parents to stay at home after the birth of their child. Even the AEI-Brookings Working Group on Paid Family Leave notes that fatherhood involvement in child care activities increases when they are able to take PFL. That not only improves language, cognitive, and social development of the child, “it can improve gender equity in the home by encouraging a more equitable division of child care,” according to the report.
But there’s an implication in Greszler’s op-ed that these stay at home “parents” are probably women, and that it’s unlikely their partners would take or be allowed leave. This terrible attitude is at the heart of many corporate policies that give leave only to the “primary caregiver,” regularly defined as the mother. In fact, such a policy from JPMorgan Chase is being litigated in court by the ACLU on behalf of a father who was denied PFL simply because he was a father.
Most damning, the children who are at the heart of why PFL policies are important, are almost completely absent from Greszler’s argument. They are the ones who most benefit from top-notch parental leave policies because it means they grow smarter and healthier, which can only improve our national outcome. Perhaps that’s why PFL is actually supported by both Democrats and Republicans for whom Washington state Senator Joe Fain is an example.
But this is clearly news for Rachel Greszler and the Heritage Foundation, who are apparently more interested in calcifying partisan political stances at all costs than lifting up the American family through good policy.