Listening to Parents on Paid Leave | Opinion

Last month, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) summed up the conventional wisdom among too many Republicans when it comes to family policy.

"People decide to have families and become parents, that's something they need to consider when they make that choice," Johnson told a local TV station. "I've never really felt it was society's responsibility to take care of other people's children."

Sen. Johnson's blunt yet revealing comments reflected a certain strain of economic conservatism that emphasizes individual responsibility to the exclusion of mutual responsibility. The political movement that wants to bill itself the "parents' party" still has a tendency to tie itself to old attitudes about the role of government rather than respond to what parents actually want.

In a new research brief, published by the Institute for Family Studies and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, I talked to parents and dug into polling around the issue of paid leave. My conclusion is that the best way to deliver for families is to offer a universal, modest benefit for all parents, regardless of work status.

For families, the biggest benefit of a universal approach to parental benefits would be its simplicity. Among the parents I talked to, a common complaint about our current employer-based approach to paid leave was the feeling of getting trapped in bureaucracy. "It was just so confusing," said one Texas mom, whose first child was born while she was a contract worker. "[You] just don't know what your options are, who to talk to [or] what you need to do.... It's frustrating."

Polling data back up the anecdotes I heard. Analyzing data made available by the Pew Research Center, I found that most liberals and moderates believe the government should play a role in guaranteeing access to paid leave. Conservatives, unsurprisingly, tended to favor letting employers decide for themselves—with one key exception.

Those on the Right who had children at home were almost evenly split on whether government should help ensure paid leave access, suggesting that a firsthand understanding of the challenges parents face might shift some conservatives away from conventional limited-government sentiments.

Paid Leave rally U.S. Capitol
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 02: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) joins families, parents, and caregivers as they bring their stories and voices to Capitol Hill to call on Congress to include paid family and medical leave in the ‘Build Back Better' legislative package during an all day vigil spotlighting the human cost of not having a national paid leave policy on November 02, 2021 in Washington, DC. Paul Morigi/Getty Images

A benefit to parents that doesn't carry the baggage of labor-force attachment and wage replacement could enjoy cleaner and more comprehensive implementation. The paid leave bill that was the model for Build Back Better, for example, would have left 30 percent of new parents—who disproportionately tend to be low-income and minorities—ineligible for benefits, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The People's Policy Project's Matt Bruenig has illustrated this point convincingly: if you're a young parent, you begin incurring expenses for your child before they are born, yet you may be decades away from hitting your full earnings potential. Proposals to draw forward individual retirement savings are one way to address that problem, but they do little to help low-income parents, who generally need help the most. Having the government pool the "risk" of parenthood across as many workers as possible, and allow them to draw down a modest benefit when they become parents, is a straightforward application of social insurance.

We can learn from other countries that already do something similar—Germany, for example, offers a "Elterngeld," or parental allowance, to all new parents, so long as they do not work more than 32 hours a week and are not in the highest income bracket.

Lastly, shifting the focus from expansive paid leave proposals to straightforward parental benefits with job guarantees would reduce some of the fiscal concerns around creating a new federal benefit. Concerns that the BBB approach would allow workers to falsely claim paid leave, for example, helped scuttle negotiations last fall. Faking a new baby to claim benefits is uncommon and easily detectable. A focused plan with a discrete, easily determinable claim on eligibility could help get lawmakers across the aisle on board, all without breaking the bank—a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests $15 billion would be enough for a modest benefit for all parents.

This price tag could easily be accomplished in a deficit-neutral manner without requiring armies of bureaucrats to implement or new paperwork for small business owners. And given that small businesses tend to have less ability to offer paid leave than their larger competitors, adopting a universal parental benefit would arguably be pro-competition.

Most importantly, it would demonstrate that conservatives who talk about the importance of the family are able to offer policies that meaningfully support families while avoiding laissez-faire libertarianism and the unwanted societal transformation proposed by progressives.

Especially if the Supreme Court opens the door to greater state regulation of abortion later this year, conservatives must be willing to stand up just as much against excessive individualism as against big government overreach. A modest, universal payment to all parents, with legal protection of their job should they return to the work force, would be a way to do just that.

Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and a former senior Republican staffer on Capital Hill.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.