The push for paid family leave is gaining steam across the country. Four states — California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island — already mandate some form of paid family leave, and Colorado is likely to enact a new paid leave requirement this year. The question on both sides of the political aisle is no longer whether such legislation should be passed, but what that legislation should look like.
However, realizing paid leave is easier said than done. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed expanding California’s paid leave to six months, which would be the longest leave period in the nation. Despite a tremendous push to expand the state’s program, Newsom is struggling to get the idea off the ground. The state’s already-strained budget can’t support this very expensive proposition, and even the Democratic-controlled legislature seems unwilling to increase taxes to the extent necessary to sustain such a program.
Therein lies paid leave programs’ greatest challenge: Someone has to foot the bill.
Politicians and the media frequently tell us that a paid family leave program is strongly supported by most Americans. The left-leaning National Partnership for Women & Families recently published a study that found overwhelming support among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents for “a national policy that would cover all working people who need leave.” And Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy told a congressional subcommittee in 2018 that “there’s bipartisan interest in expanding paid maternal, family, and medical leave.”
But even organizations that advocate for government-mandated (and taxpayer-financed) paid family leave programs do not prioritize paying for these benefits for their own employees — and that’s because such programs as they currently exist simply cost too much. The New York Times noted that most Planned Parenthood offices do not provide paid maternity leave, for fear that the costs would force the nonprofit to close clinics. Many other companies that publicly support paid family leave have also found it too costly.
Rather than imposing such an expensive, one-size-fits-all program on everyone, politicians should learn whether Americans truly want a program — enough to pay the price. The most effective way to do that is to put the option on income tax forms, along with an amount required for each person’s share of paying for the program. Like Social Security, such a program comes with its own dedicated taxes.
But where Social Security is compulsory — and redistributes wealth from today’s workers to retirees, thereby driving up debt and reducing personal accountability — this proposal would be voluntary. People would pay directly in exchange for benefits, just as they currently pay for babysitting services or daycare. That’s the only way to determine if the American people truly want family leave, as opposed to seeking a new government entitlement program. And that option would also ensure that only those who want the program will pay, while those who get no benefit from the program will pay no increased tax.
Americans seem to understand that decisions about leave ought to be handled by those who would administer or benefit from it. The National Partnership of Women & Families study found that 38 percent of respondents believed the best way to pay for a national leave policy “is through employers and employees sharing the costs.” Another 21 percent thought employers “alone” should pay. (Even that option really means workers’ pay, since the cost of mandatory employee benefits come out of what could have been wages). Only 19 percent thought leave should be funded by the government, including by increased taxes.
Politicians should be honest about the inability of America’s swollen, deficit-ridden budgets to sustain the types of paid leave programs being proposed. The costs of these programs must be borne by someone. When individuals are free to choose for themselves — that is, when they truly understand and voluntarily assume the costs — the outcomes are more likely to match their unique preferences.
Christina Sandefur (@CmSandefur) is executive vice president at the nonprofit Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based nonprofit dedicated to limited government. Frayda Levin is a former small business owner and previously worked as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill and in the Reagan administration.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.