Ivanka Trump has been the target of a boycott, scorn from progressive feminists, and ridicule from late-night comedians. Yet many conservatives are also wary, because they see her as threatening to push the Republican party left, especially on issues such as child care and paid family leave. This is a mistake. Conservatives need to follow Ivanka’s lead and talk more confidently about these issues, which are critically important to many American women and families. This doesn’t mean conservatives should embrace government-growing policies, but that they should focus on supporting White House reforms that help women and are consistent with conservative principles.
Conservatives don’t want the government mandating that all businesses must provide paid leave for workers, since that would do to our compensation system what Obamacare did to health care. Such a one-size-fits-all regime would ignore the different preferences of our 140 million working Americans, encourage job consolidation, and, ironically, give workers less flexibility.
But it’s worth noting that, while the president and first daughter talk often about the need for businesses to do more for workers, thus far, neither of them has publicly floated such a mandate. The Trump campaign’s sole paid-leave proposal would expand the Unemployment Insurance (UI) system to assist new mothers who lack job-based paid-leave benefits. Yes, this would expand an entitlement program, but the expansion would be narrowly targeted to those who need it most: lower-income women who might otherwise lose their jobs and potentially turn to public assistance for a far longer period of time.
This suggests that the Trump administration’s goal is to help those falling through the cracks, rather than implementing a broad mandate or a new entitlement program. Conservatives should have a similar focus. They should imagine a single woman who is working hard and earning $35,000 a year for a small business that can’t afford to provide paid-leave benefits. If she has to give birth via c-section, how can we help her? No one wants her to lose her job or her housing when all she needs is a little support until she’s back on her feet. We conservatives have policy ideas to help her and others in similar situations; we should be more eager to offer them.
This is important, both because helping people in need is the right thing to do and because helping those in the most need might have an added strategic benefit for those concerned about government growth: It could discourage the push for city- and state-level leave mandates, which not only burden the people in those jurisdictions, but threaten to push national businesses to support progressive, one-size-fits-all federal policies just to standardize what’s expected of them.
Conservatives opposed to using the UI system as a means of helping needy new mothers should offer alternatives. This could mean a new tax-advantaged saving vehicle. It could mean personal-care accounts to be funded by employers, workers, and charities used during employees’ unpaid absences from work. It could mean a new refundable tax credit, modeled after the Earned-Income Tax Credit, to help low-income workers who need to take leave for a Family Medical Leave Act qualifying event but lack employer-provided paid-leave benefits. Or it could mean providing tax credits to small businesses who give their employees paid leave.
Meanwhile, the crux of Trump’s child-care proposal is greater tax relief for families with children, which has long been a priority for the many conservatives who believe our current tax code unfairly favors those who make other investments, like mortgages, over those who choose to start a family. Importantly, the administration has indicated that it wants tax relief not just for families that spend money on day-care centers, but also for those with stay-at-home parents, grandparents, or other relatives who step up and make significant sacrifices to care for young children.
Increasing the child tax credit could accomplish this, and it could be scaled based on income and children’s ages (to help those with younger children who face the biggest costs). Conservatives are loath to make such tax credits refundable, since that effectively creates a system of welfare payments, but they might be more open to this approach if it were coupled with the consolidation of other child-focused tax credits and ineffective government programs. Head Start, for example, used $8.6 billion in federal funds last year, but a congressionally mandated study found no observable, lasting benefits to those who participated in the program. Conservatives should applaud efforts to reallocate funding for such ineffective bureaucracies and programs directly to low-income parents.
Issues such as child care and paid leave aren’t going away. Working women and families with young children want to know that their representatives understand the challenges they face and are eager to help. By joining Ivanka in this important conversation, conservatives can head off Democrats’ inevitable “GOP war on women” campaign smear by showing that they actually do care deeply about women and families. Even better, they can prove that the progressive approach is inferior to the conservative one, which preserves true flexibility and economic opportunity while creating a better system for all Americans.
— Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum and the vice president for policy of Independent Women’s Voice.