Trump Says He Supports Paid Family Leave

Why on Earth should we believe him?

Photo illustration: Donald Trump surrounded by question marks.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images.

Taking Leave is a Better Life Lab series marking the 25th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Who supports paid family leave? Women’s organizations. Family rights organizations. Disability rights organizations. And apparently, as he reminded us in his State of the Union address last week, President Donald J. Trump.

Just as Trump’s support for paid family leave during his campaign was easy to miss, the nod to it in his speech was brief, and it came amid other workforce development promises: “As tax cuts create new jobs, let us invest in workforce development and job training. Let us open great vocational schools so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential. And let us support working families by supporting paid family leave.”

Thus far, paid leave advocates have been keeping Republicans at arm’s length for valid reasons: There’s absolutely nothing in Trump’s first-year policy record to suggest he’s serious about it.

When asked for comment on what the White House’s current plans for paid family leave look like, an unnamed official said: “While we are pleasantly surprised by the progress we are making in generating conversation around the issue, we know how hard it is going to be and that for all the talk on the issue, nobody has been able to get it done before. We are committed to it and the priority now is to continue to build a coalition. The plan in our budget last year was to put a flag in the ground and we continue to meet on various options.”

Why is an alleged policy priority for the White House merely being flagged for further consideration rather than pushed through with enthusiasm while Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House? On this issue, Trump’s own party isn’t behind him.

However, there are at least some Republican players jumping into the fray to change that. Politico reports that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is working with Ivanka Trump, a longtime proponent of paid family leave, to build support for a paid family leave bill within the Republican Party.

Rubio is hoping to debunk the idea that paid family leave is an idea that belongs to the left. “Forcing companies to provide it is perhaps an idea that finds its genesis on the left, but the notion that pregnancy should not be a bankruptcy-eliciting event is one that I think all Americans should be supportive of,” he told Politico.

Actually, the idea of providing paid family leave by simply requiring the employers do it and fund it themselves isn’t an idea from the left but one that seems to be coming from, well, basically nobody at this point. For years, backers of paid family leave have proposed insurance models, which basically mirror normally Republican-targeted programs like Social Security and Medicare. Under these models, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act, employees and employers pay in a little money every paid period (a sum close to the cost of a cup of coffee, Gillibrand has claimed) to a fund administered by the government so that someday, when individual workers need leave to care for themselves or a family member, they can take what they need without great cost to themselves or to the public. This is essentially what New York state just put in place for its citizens starting Jan. 1 this year.

The real stumbling block ahead for Rubio is that every argument he can make now for paid family leave could be equally applied to backing basically every social safety net policy and workplace regulation his party has been attacking for decades. What about the cost of child care? College tuition? Health care? None of these life experiences should be bankruptcy-eliciting events, but that hasn’t garnered Republican support for public policy solutions to them.

And in just a year in office, Trump has obliterated workplace regulations designed to protect workers on the job and off, and he’s indicated that he thinks almost any safety net program or work regulation is a job-killing, economy-sinking regulation. So why is paid leave different?

For one thing, activists have been massively successful in building momentum around paid leave both at the state level and among individual corporations. And public support for paid family leave is enormous. But if political opportunism were the only thing causing Trump to pay this issue lip service, he’d probably be making lots of other different decisions to reflect the public will, like not attempting to repeal the ACA or ending DACA, both of which were unpopular in the population at large.

In truth, the unique momentum of the paid leave movement at the state level has likely left Republicans like Rubio realizing that if they don’t take up the issue, Democrats certainly will.

On Monday, the National Partnership for Women and Families, an organization that advocates for the FAMILY Act, hosted a congressional reception to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (which gives some American workers the right to unpaid leave).

Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a longtime paid leave advocate and co-sponsor of the FAMILY Act, told attendees that though she’s eager to work with anyone who is serious about paid family leave, there are a few matters she won’t compromise on. These deal breakers included a leave plan that is only a parental leave plan (not for other family members or self-care), one that provides less than 12 weeks paid leave, or one that is insufficiently funded. For most backers, “insufficiently funded” would include a plan that weakens Social Security or forces people to choose between retirement and leave, as some fear will be the eventual Republican plan. (The conservative Independent Women’s Forum published a proposal along these lines in January.)

Advocates who’ve been studying implementation best practices over the years are unlikely to back a Republican attempt that doesn’t meet their standards. “I’m not, nor are any of us, settling for half-measures these days,” DeLauro said to the cheering audience at Monday night’s event.

Still, this new interest among some conservatives in passing paid family leave is a sign advocates have succeeded in convincing the public of the inadequacy of the U.S.’s current patchwork approach to leave, of the injustice of forcing families to choose between caring for one another at life’s most difficult times and paying their bills, and of the feasibility of something better. This shift is a victory, whatever specific policy attempts come out of it.

There are real political differences like these that might make bipartisan collaboration on paid family leave difficult. But the power Republicans have to dictate the terms of the debate might change after the 2018 midterm elections. If Republicans lose control of the House, paid family leave might be the common denominator issue legislators on both sides of the aisle can turn to. This just might be the opportunity paid family leave advocates have been waiting on for 25 years.