Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Think Paid Family Leave Is Possible—Yet

Most of the rest of the world has it. Why doesn’t America?
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Chris Rock and Tom Lennon in What to Expect When You're Expecting (Melissa Moseley/Associated Press)

Hillary Clinton isn’t against federally mandated family leave—she just doesn’t think it’s politically feasible.

“I think, eventually, it should be [implemented],” Clinton said at CNN’s town-hall meeting Tuesday to promote her new book, Hard Choices. But she immediately qualified her position: “I don’t think, politically, we could get it now.”

The U.S. lags woefully behind in paid family leave. According to a report released last month from the UN International Labour Organization, 185 countries provided paid maternity leave. Only three countries don't: Oman, Papua New Guinea, and the United States. Seventy-eight of those countries also provide paternity leave.

While the 1993 Federal Medical Leave Act provides as much as 12 weeks of leave for a worker to care for a new addition (whether it be a newborn, adoptive child, or foster child) or an ill family member, there is nothing that guarantees that time off is paid. In fact, only California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island offer paid family leave; just nine more states even have defined family-leave laws. Most estimates find that only half of the working population is eligible for medical leave under the FMLA. People who are left out include couples whose marriages aren't recognized, part-time workers, and people who are simply unable to afford taking time off without pay.

But there seems to be broad support for paid leave in the United States. A bipartisan poll conducted on behalf of the National Partnership for Women and Families, a pro-leave group, just after the 2012 election, found that 86 percent of Americans supported leave—including 96 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans. The poll inspired new hope that President Obama might take up leave in his second term.

Instead—vindicating Clinton’s opinion that leave is politically impossible right now—the issue has all but disappeared, overtaken by gridlock, government shutdown, and controversies over Obamacare and foreign policy.

Late last year, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Representative Rose DeLauro of Connecticut, both Democrats, introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which proposed offering new parents and caretakers the ability to take 12 paid weeks off each year. Workers would contribute 0.2 percent of their wages to the Social Security Administration, which would handle paying bills. Employees could only get up to 66 percent of their monthly income, but that's a great deal more than the 0 percent workers in 47 states currently receive if they stay home with a loved one.

But the bill is stalled in the House. The last action it saw was on December 12, 2013, when it was referred to committee, where it disappeared and has yet to be brought up again. It received broad support from Democrats—87 of them, to be exact—but not a single Republican; GOP politicians argue the bill would hurt small businesses. The president's 2015 budget includes a plan for a $5 million "State Paid Leave Fund," but he hasn't made it a priority.

Why is paid family leave so controversial?

First, it's pricey. The three states that have paid family leave fund their individual programs through employee-paid payroll taxes, then manage the disbursement of funds through disability programs. In plain English that means increasing taxes and hiring more government administrative staff. Meanwhile, small businesses complain that the paperwork and time needed to provide paid time off is a major burden, which is why the 1993 law only requires companies with 50 or more employees to offer leave.

A 2009 piece in Newsweek even suggested employers might be less willing to hire women if paid-family-leave laws were in place:

Mandated paid family leave makes it more expensive to hire workers, particularly women. That makes employers less willing to hire women, especially those with limited education or skills who typically do the kind of work it's easy to find someone else to do. If the objective is to help poor women remain employed, mandated paid family leave will do exactly the opposite.

That’s an especially important question since single mothers, who arguably need paid leave most, tend to be poorer.

But it’s not just economics. Social expectations play an important role in shaping American views on paid leave too. Fathers face pressure to return to work immediately after a birth. The thinking goes that their partner gave birth, not them, so why is staying at home to care for the family newbie necessary?

In April, New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy was at his wife’s bedside, expecting his first child, rather than in the dugout on Opening Day. Though Murphy was back on the field three days later, that wasn't soon enough for some commentators. "Quite frankly I would’ve said, 'C-section before the season starts. I need to be at Opening Day. I’m sorry, this is what makes our money, this is how we’re going to live our life, this is going to give our child every opportunity to be a success in life,'" said former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason. New York sports-radio host Mike Francesca wondered why Murphy, who he noted only missed a single game the year before, wanted to take a few days off. “You see the birth and you get back,” Francesca said. “What do you do in the first couple days? Maybe you take care of the other kids. Well, you gotta have someone to do that if you’re a Major League Baseball player. Your wife doesn’t need your help the first couple days, you know that.”

Even in countries with more liberal family-leave laws, the practice remains controversial. Study after study has questioned whether paid leave discourages workers from returning to the workplace. Sweden, which is regularly held up as an international exemplar for family leave has seen moms struggle with finding jobs post-birth and in fact lack the incentive to return at all. Germany tackled this problem by cutting its paid time off for new parents in half in 2007. The rate of new moms returning to the workplace spiked 14 percent within a year.

Clinton, while supportive of paid maternity leave, didn't throw her support behind fully paid family leave in the United States. But she acknowledged "gaps" in the 1993 act her husband signed into law.

"I support trying to figure out how we're going to do more to give families that peace of mind and the guarantee they're not going to either lose their job or their income while they try to fulfill the most human of responsibilities," she said. "So, we need to look to see how we make that work, what the conditions would be, but it's unfinished business, in my view."

And in the current American political environment, it's unfinished business that may remain unfinished.

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Tanya Basu writes for and produces The Atlantic's National Channel.

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