Polls and public opinion research can be interesting, but it’s important to also understand the limits to what survey questions tells us. 

Slate’s Boer Deng  would have readers believe that data from a new survey proves support for a government paid leave mandate is overwhelming, making it a slam-dunk for any politician willing to champion it:

…there is one issue where an overwhelming consensus between both parties can be found. A staggering 81 percent of Americans are in favor of requiring companies to offer paid sick leave, and 78 percent favor offering leave for the arrival of a child.  For sick leave, especially, support is universal, with 90 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of Independents, and 76 percent of Republicans in favor. Men and women both think we ought to require that employers offer paid leave for parents.

Yet proponents of these mandates ought to be a little more cautious.  Surveys often get very contradictory results because of the way questions are phrased, especially when the questions feature only the benefits, while avoiding mentioning the tradeoffs and downsides, of policy proposals.

Surveys tend to find much more support for increased education spending when the survey question is phrased “Do you believe that government should invest more in our children’s education?” than when the question is instead “Do you support tax increases to fund more education spending?” or even when just a little more context is given to the issue, such as “Per pupil spending for public school exceeds $10,000.  Do you think spending should be increased more?”

Yes, four out of five people responded affirmatively when asked if companies ought to be required to offer paid sick and maternity leave.  But if respondents were given more context (such as that most companies already offer full-time employees paid time off) or were encouraged to consider the tradeoffs—such as that more generous benefits tend to lead to lower take-home pay—support would likely drop.    

A real discussion about a paid leave policy would give the public a better understanding of how mandates affect business decisions and therefore would ultimately impact workers.  People should know that most companies offer leave benefits because it helps them attract and retain valued workers.  But those companies that don’t offer such benefits usually have a reason why they aren’t including those benefits in those compensation packages.  If one forces all companies to offer paid leave benefits, companies will take that into account as they make their staffing plans:  They may seek to employ fewer, more highly-skilled workers to minimize workplace disruptions; they may lower take-home pay to compensate for the higher costs associated with the need for more temp workers; if the mandates apply only to full-time workers (as was posed in this survey questions) they may follow the ObamaCare path and cut workers’ hours so that more qualify as part-time.

People want workers to be treated fairly.   They sympathize with the need for people to take leave time.   And in general, people like proposals that claim to help people and give them some new: Do you think Joe Smith deserves a raise? Sure I do! Why not?  

But policy matters are more complicated than that.  The American people should have a heightened awareness of that, because of their recent experience with government’s over-promises and half-truths.   ObamaCare was sold as a magical solution to our health care system’s problems:  We can give all the uninsured comprehensive insurance without any extra costs!  And of course you’ll be able to keep the plan you like!  

That was always absurd:  Policies come with tradeoffs.  As we’ve seen with ObamaCare, millions of Americans lost their previous coverage, are paying more for more narrow coverage, have insurance but can’t get medical appointments, and even with all this and with trillions of dollars of new spending scheduled, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that even after full ObamaCare implementation 30 million Americans will still lack insurance.

Recognizing the costs of proposed paid leave benefits doesn’t mean that we have to opt to do nothing to help those who face true hardship from a lack of employer-provided leave.  But we should carefully consider how such interventions will impact other factors, like their economic opportunities.  It doesn’t do the working poor any good to offer generous new benefits if that means that many will find themselves out of work or with pay cuts.

As I’ve written before, rather than one-size-fits-all employer mandates or government leave programs that change the employment contracts of all working Americans, policymakers should consider focusing their efforts on helping those who really need it, such as through a targeted financial support program modeled on the Earned Income Tax Credit that can help people taking leave. 

Identifying better policy solutions won’t come from relying on misleading polling information, but from a real discussion and debate of the tradeoffs that necessarily come with reform.