The Conservative Argument Over Paid Family Leave

Some acknowledge it’d be nice for everyone to have, but think it’s unrealistic.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

In the only industrialized country without a national program providing paid maternity leave, the idea of establishing one is gaining purchase politically. Senators have introduced bills that would offer paid leave for new parents (not just mothers), President Donald Trump’s latest budget makes mention of doing the same, and several states have created their own programs in the absence of a federal one. Paid leave for people to care for sick or injured family members is gaining popularity as well.

At this point, the state of paid leave—whether used to care for newborns, other loved ones, or oneself—is that Americans could use more of it. According to the Department of Labor, only 16 percent of private-sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employer. And 93 percent of workers earning less than about $14 an hour have no access to such benefits.

Liberals in particular tend to like the idea of making sure people can afford to take time off work to care for others or themselves. It’s often framed as an unalloyed good: Workers win, in that they can afford to look after their loved ones and not drop out of the workforce. The receivers of care win, in that they’re attended to by family members (and babies in particular get to bond with their parents during a crucial developmental stage). And businesses win, in that paid leave can reduce employee turnover and increase long-run productivity and worker satisfaction.

When I asked Pronita Gupta of the Center for Law and Social Policy, an organization that supports policies that help low-income people, whether she saw any downsides to implementing a federally provided paid-family-leave program, she said no.

Even as support for such a policy builds, there are still some who think it’d be unnecessary or even wrongheaded. At a panel discussion on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, scholars from conservative think tanks including the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute debated whether government-provided paid family leave would cost too much, and whether it’s even needed at all.

The Heritage Foundation’s Rachel Greszler came down against government involvement. If taxpayers end up funding some sort of comprehensive paid-leave program, she insisted, “what we will get is less take-home pay for everybody and more intervention in choices that we would rather be making on our own without the government telling us what our options are.”

What would she like to see instead? “Pro-growth policies” like the Trump tax cuts, which she argues led more employers to roll out paid-parental-leave programs. “The more money that you put back in workers’ pockets and in businesses’ revenues, the better able the businesses are to provide paid family leave,” Greszler said during the panel discussion, which was convened by the right-leaning Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank, acknowledged that being able to pay everyone to take time off work would be wonderful for families and businesses alike. “Paid leave as a benefit is great. And so [would be] a 25 percent [increase in the] minimum wage—if we live in a world with no costs, no trade-offs, and reality is optional,” she said. Her position was that, though it would be nice if it were possible for everyone to have the option of getting paid family leave, the federal government can’t afford to provide it, because the world isn’t “rainbows and unicorns all the time.”

She, like Greszler, believes that providing leave is best left to employers. “When businesses can afford to give paid leave, they increasingly do so when they feel optimistic about their bottom line,” de Rugy said, citing Target as an example of a company that recently expanded parental-leave benefits for even its part-time and hourly workers.

De Rugy prefers “privately provided policies negotiated between workers and employers based on their own unique needs,” and thinks that while the private sector “could always do better,” it is “doing quite a great job” of providing paid leave to workers.

Of course, not all conservatives feel this way. Also at the panel was Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “We cannot stop the conversation at, ‘There are costs, so let’s forget about it,’” she said. To her, a parental-leave policy would expand parents’—particularly women’s—options by reducing the financial pressure to return to work right away. “What’s the larger goal of conservatives? Is it to encourage human economic opportunity, to encourage human flourishing? Or is it just to minimize the size of government?” she asked rhetorically.

The gulf between people like Mathur and people like de Rugy might come down to their differing assessments of whether enough people currently have access to paid parental leave. Mathur sees a “market failure” in all of the new mothers whose choices are constrained. But de Rugy does not. “It’s not [about] what you think the market should provide,” she said. “The market is a process. It’s not a guarantee that it’s going to deliver whatever people dream up should be the ideal world without taking [costs] under consideration.”

De Rugy and Greszler emphasized their belief that the market would determine a sensible level of paid-leave accessibility. At one point during the panel discussion, Greszler suggested that instead of relying on the government, Americans seeking to take parental leave could take more initiative by “going to the bank and taking out a loan in your own name.”

“I don’t think banks offer loans for parental leave,” one of her fellow discussants pointed out.

“They don’t now, but maybe they would,” Greszler responded. “Banks offer loans for all types of reasons. If the private sector doesn’t provide it and we have to go to the government to get it, then you’re relying on the government. You’re not relying on yourself.”

Kristin Shapiro, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, made the argument that her fellow conservatives shouldn’t leave the contours of any potential paid-leave policy up to Democratic politicians. “Conservatives have a big negative reaction to it because they think, Oh my gosh, we’re not Sweden!” she said, and then went on to add that “if Republicans don’t [shape the policy], then the only option for paid family leave out there will be policies that would turn us into Sweden.”

Of course, on the issue of paid parental leave, the United States won’t resemble Sweden anytime soon. There, parents get to divvy up 480 days of paid leave per child, most of which are provided at near-full pay. But given the increasing popularity of the idea of giving people financial support to leave work for several weeks—among liberals and, occasionally, conservatives—Shapiro does seem to have it right that paid leave is an issue that Republicans would be wise not to ignore.