Americans are concerned when they hear that some workers don’t have paid leave benefits where they work. After all, we all need time away from work, when you get sick, need to care for a family member, or have a new baby. In most other countries, such benefits are guaranteed, so many people ask: Why not here?
It’s no wonder that liberal politicians confidently promote their proposals that they claim will solve this problem for all American workers. Hillary Clinton proposes requiring that all businesses must provide twelve weeks of paid leave, while other leading Democrats support the government taking over the provision of paid leave entirely, by creating a new entitlement program that would pay workers when they have to take time off from work. Conservatives often assume that this issue is a political minefield for them: Pointing out the enormous costs and economic downsides of the progressive approach will only make them seem indifferent to the hardship people—particularly women with lower income—face.
Yet new research shows that, with messaging done right, this issue could be a winner for conservatives. The Independent Women’s Forum and Evolving Strategies recently undertook a research project to explore people’s understanding of the paid leave issue and tradeoffs of a variety of government proposals. This research reveals that most Americans understand that government proposals come with tradeoffs and are open to the message that too-good-to-be-true promises tend to be just that. And in fact, a conservative, market-based approach to the paid leave issues actually had greater support than the traditional liberal approach.
When people were asked without any additional information about the impact of these policy ideas, overwhelming majorities supported both the market-based approach of using Personal Care Accounts (PCAs) to allow workers to save tax-free for time off from work (84%) and the popular liberal approach of using a universal paid leave mandate to require all employers to provide paid leave (76%). When asked which policy they preferred of the two, 49% already preferred PCAs over the employer benefit mandate. And when people heard the conservative arguments against the employer mandate, support for the progressive approach dropped considerably.
One group of those surveyed heard a message that highlighted how proponents of an employment mandate ignore the real costs that their proposal would create. The implications for business were explained: These mandates create new costs for employers, which would mean they would have to reduce pay, cut jobs and hours, or could go out of business, all of which is bad news for workers. Under a new mandate, people could expect lower take-home pay, and fewer job options. After learning about the downsides tradeoffs of the employer mandate, support for the mandate fell by nearly 20 percentage points and the percentage of people preferring PCAs over the mandate rose by 9 percentage points. The impact of this message was greatest among women, with the share of women preferring PCAs rising by 11 points.
Another group heard a different message on the risks associated with the new mandate, in particular the risk that this mandate could backfire on that that we all most want to help, by reducing the number of jobs and take-home pay, particularly for women and those with lower income. This led to a 15 percentage point drop in support for the mandate and a 9 percentage point increase in support for conservative PCA proposal over the liberal approach.
This should encourage conservatives not to shy away from discussing this important policy issue. The public wants politicians to be honest about the downsides, as well as the upsides, to government actions. Conservatives can emphasize that they aren’t merely the party of “no” and don’t oppose progressive solutions because they are indifferent to people’s challenges. Rather they are concerned that these proposals will make matters worse, rather than better, for those who are already struggling. Conservatives’ market-based alternative policy solutions have a natural appeal to Americans, once they hear that these ideas even exist.
This research project focused exclusively on the paid leave issue, but the findings have implications for other areas as well. Conservatives have a positive case to make when it comes to other employment mandates and welfare policy. It makes sense to people when they hear that new benefits come with costs, and are willing to reconsider their positions based on this new information. Conservatives just have to jump into to these issues with smart, considered fact-bases messages and a positive alternative vision—and start changing minds.