The U.S. is long overdue for a comprehensive federal plan for paid family leave. The first step to passing it is defeating the one Marco Rubio introduced in the Senate on Thursday.
Rubio’s “conservative approach” bill would create a mechanism for new parents to receive income for up to 12 weeks from their own Social Security. In exchange, they would have to delay retirement to make up for drawing on the fund for the leave. Rubio estimates the delay would total about three to six months for each child.
Rubio correctly noted that too many families with new babies are facing grave financial insecurity:
It is estimated that just over 1 in 10 workers receives paid family leave from their employers, and those who do tend to be in highly paid and educated professions. This means the problems stemming from financial insecurity around having kids, such as increased debt, welfare receipt, reduced birth weight and negative cognitive outcomes for children and increased family instability are increasingly concentrated among middle- and working-class moms and dads—the backbone of our country.
Although Rubio echoes the arguments progressives have made for decades for a variety of family-supportive policies his party has vehemently opposed, paid-leave advocates aren’t welcoming the Republican’s plan with open arms.
For one, the plan is far too limited in scope and doesn’t cover the most common reasons U.S. families need leave: to sit at the hospital bed of a sick child, to care for a dying parent, or to look after themselves while they recover from serious illness. Rubio’s plan is limited strictly to new parents.
What’s more, the Rubio plan offers “too little money to too few people from an unsustainable source,” according to the advocacy organization Family Values @ Work. A worker earning $25,000 a year (a poverty-level salary) would earn 92 percent of her regular salary for six weeks while on leave, and that number would go down to just 62 percent if she took the full allotment of 12 weeks. (Experts recommend at least six months for healthy maternity leave.) The payment rates are even lower for higher income–earning families. As we know from states that have implemented their own paid-leave plans, when wage replacement rates during leave are too low, families can’t afford to take leave, and they don’t. This is hardly the path to financial security for new parents that Rubio claims it to be.
Robbing your future self to help your present self scrape by is hardly a benefit, especially in a country where old age is a leading driver of poverty. Andrea Flynn, a fellow at the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute, says, “This proposal would force women to choose between leave and retirement security. And we already know women’s retirement is much more precarious than men’s.” She notes that women on average have $3,000 less in retirement income per year than men, and it’s even worse for women of color. The plan could also be a threat to Social Security itself, since the program is many Americans’ sole source of retirement income.
The old adage that something is better than nothing may tempt some paid-leave backers to support this policy. But this approach misses two important points. First, the “something better” may not be as far off as you think. The success of comprehensive paid-leave plans with sustainable funding at the state level (seven states and counting) and the growing number of sponsors on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act make it likely to pass if Democrats get back even a modest majority in Congress. This also may be why Republicans are throwing their own Social Security–draining hat in the ring, before the Democrats get their way.
And second, passing a better-than-nothing solution to paid leave will very likely kill all that momentum it’s taken years to build. In fact, passing an insufficient law in the hopes of it leading to a sufficient one is how we got here: More than 25 years ago, Democratic legislators and paid family leave advocates compromised to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gave a right to unpaid leave to workers who met fairly stringent criteria. They hoped this law would soon be amended to give all workers a right to paid leave. And yet, here we are today, still waiting.
The good news is that Republican support for Rubio’s bill has been scant thus far, even with the president supporting paid leave. But let’s hope that the U.S. doesn’t have to wait another 25 years to enter the ranks of countries that offer paid leave. Let’s also hope Americans aren’t calculating how long their retirement is offset because they took leave to have children. A comprehensive, equitable paid-leave plan could be just an election or two away. That’s something worth holding out for.