It’s the talking point that’s become a cudgel: the United States is the only developed nation that does not require corporations to provide paid family leave. “For many workers, staying home to take care of a sick child or an aging parent means losing a paycheck—or worse, even losing a job,” Hillary Clinton has said on the campaign trail. “That is an impossible choice we shouldn’t ask anyone to make—and yet American workers are forced to make it every day.”
Clinton proposes guaranteeing 12 weeks of paid family leave at two-thirds of a worker’s current salary, funded by a tax increase on Americans making more than $250,000 a year. This allows her to keep a campaign promise to not raise taxes on middle-income families, but it makes her plan politically less viable, even on the left. Bernie Sanders has knocked Clinton for not supporting congressional Democrats’ Family Act, which would pay for family leave by increasing payroll taxes by 0.2 percentage points on both employers and employees.
This lack of cohesion among progressives could be a golden opportunity for conservatives to prove their responsiveness to working-class needs by proposing their own paid maternity leave plan. Instead, all the Republican presidential candidates, save one, are ignoring the issue, at their peril. There is no shortage of right-leaning politicians and commentators who support strong families but say that women should negotiate in the job market for paid benefits. Highly educated women working at a tech company or ad agency might easily “lean in” and obtain generous benefits. For the moms working behind a fast-food counter or doing data entry—the parents most in need of a helping hand—requests for paid leave could easily be met with laughter or worse.
A moral case for paid family leave is easy to make. Courtney Reissig recently provided the “pro-life case for paid maternity leave” in Christianity Today, while conservative pundit Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote in The Week that “it really does seem like it is uncivilized for most working women in America to be deprived of paid maternity leave.” But while the goal is laudable, is there a way of supporting parents in the workforce without creating an expensive new government entitlement or increasing burdens on business?
Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute made a positive contribution to the debate last March, suggesting that the existing child and dependent care tax credit (CDCTC) should be made refundable and payable in advance to help cover the cost of a child. Making child-related tax provisions fully refundable is a sound idea, as I have written elsewhere. But expanding the child and dependent care tax credit to provide paid parental leave builds on a system that is biased toward households with both parents in the workforce.
For example, Census Bureau data show 24 percent of children under age 5 are regularly cared for during the day by their grandparents. The parents in these families could be spending less on child care than the $3,000 per child necessary to receive the full amount of the benefit. (When they file taxes, parents get back 20 to 35 percent of their total allowable expenses, depending on their income.) Additionally, in 2012, Pew Research Center found that 47 percent of women with children under 18 thought a part-time position would be “ideal” for their family’s needs. A conservative approach to paid family leave should be flexible enough to support parents who want to take a step back from being fully engaged in the workplace, and a CDCTC expansion doesn’t quite get there.
Writing in National Affairs, economist Abby McCloskey suggests a modest government guarantee of maternity leave, structured similarly to the unemployment insurance program, which would provide six weeks of paid leave to new mothers at an annual cost of about $5 billion. She proposes to pay for the plan by cutting waste in other programs, such as disability insurance. The idea is laudable, but in the current political climate, the appetite for creating new government programs is, to put it mildly, low.
Another, more politically feasible tactic McCloskey suggests is to loosen the rules around Health Savings Accounts upon the birth of a child, enabling new parents to spend tax-advantaged income on not just qualifying medical expenses, but also other costs related to the birth of a child and the following weeks—diapers, formula, child care, car seats. This approach places decision-making power in the hands of families, not federally set formulas, in responding to the financial implications of taking time away from work.
19.7 million Americans currently use HSAs. They are owned by individuals and roll over from year to year, meaning workers could conceivably start putting money aside well in advance of starting a family. While it would add a layer of bureaucratic complexity to family leave, the current Family and Medical Leave Act process is no walk in the park, and loosening HSA restrictions around childbirth would avoid the conservative stumbling block of another universal federal program. Crucially, it would also have a very low risk of crowding out other, more generous paid leave programs offered by some private companies.
It likely wouldn’t be enough to help all women adjusting to balancing work and family life after the birth of a child, but introducing and experimenting with the approach should be a no-brainer for conservatives. Pilot efforts could attempt to boost take-up rates by supporting premiums, offering subsidized HSAs to low-income families, reimbursing employers for the administrative costs of introducing the plans to their workplace, or matching a portion of employer contributions to the plans.
Conservatives shouldn’t be trapped into defending policies that are no longer adequate for a world in which 70 percent of moms with children under 18 are in the labor force. As McCloskey writes, “It makes little sense from a conservative perspective that a woman who is laid off from her job could receive unemployment-insurance payments for 26 weeks, but a new mother would receive no such payments during her period of physically enforced unemployment.” Using the infrastructure of HSAs to reimagine how new parents adjust to the first weeks after childbirth wouldn’t be the final word in supporting working moms and families, but it would be a modest, realistic, and achievable first step.
In the furor of an off-the-rails election season, getting conservatives to coalesce around a market-conscious, budget-friendly paid leave proposal may be difficult. But if conservatives were to support paid family leave by dramatically broadening the availability and flexibility of HSAs, they could dull a progressive talking point, bolster labor force participation, and put substance behind their stated goals of supporting families, mothers, and children.
Patrick T. Brown writes from Princeton, N.J. He is a former staffer with Catholic Charities USA and has written for National Review, First Things, The Washington Times, and other online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @PTBwrites.