The President's budget isn't so much a blue print of how the chief executive believes Congress should appropriate tax dollars as much as a document reconfirming his priorities. And this budget reassures voters that the President remains committed to reforming our health care system, strengthening border security and national defense, improving our infrastructure system, and enacting comprehensive tax reform. That's good news to Trump's supporters who elected him based on this platform.
Yet this budget also shows that he also remains committed to doing something to ensure that more women and men have access to paid time off. He campaigned on this promise, and first daughter Ivanka has made it one of her signature issues. The initial budget documents that have been released so far reiterate the approach to paid leave that was outlined during the campaign, but with important clarifications, including that fathers and adoptive parents, as well as new mothers, would be eligible for this new benefit:
Support Families and Children. The Budget proposes a fully paid-for proposal to provide six weeks of paid family leave to new mothers and fathers, including adoptive parents, so all families can afford to take time to recover from childbirth and bond with a new child without worrying about paying their bills. Building on the Unemployment Insurance System as a base, the Budget proposes to allow States to establish paid parental leave programs that are most appropriate for their workforce and economy.
Many conservatives will recoil from the idea of expanding an entitlement program, when our country is already sinking under the unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare, Disability, and others. To a fiscal conservative, adding tens of billion more to this tab seems a big step in the wrong direction. Yet conservatives should wait for more details about how exactly this new benefit would work and consider the bigger picture of this issue before rejecting it.
Public discussions about paid leave benefits greatly exaggerate the extent of the problem, overlooking that—in spite of their being no legal requirement for business to provide workers with paid time off—the majority of full-time workers do have paid leave time, including time that can be used following the birth or adoption of a child.
Rhetoric about the United States being a worse labor environment for women than Zimbabwe is clearly absurd, but that doesn't mean there aren't people—particularly women—who struggle because they lack paid leave benefits from their jobs. Finding a mechanism to help people with incomes too low to save on their own for periods when they will be unable to work and who lack employer-provided paid leave benefits seems like a legitimate role for a social safety net. In fact, supporting those workers seems like a far better use of public assistance than plenty of our other entitlement systems’ beneficiaries, from the consistently growing Social Security benefits going to wealthy seniors to the routinely-abused disability system.
Conservatives should also note the danger of embracing a “just-say-no” strategy on any proposal related to paid leave. Increasingly, states and cities are pursuing their own mandates and programs. If those efforts continue to be successful, they could create enormous administrative and human resource headaches for national businesses forced to comply with a patchwork of requirements. Those businesses and industries that have opposed government mandates could ultimately start advocating for a one-size-fits-all system that would at least be less complicated. This could build momentum for a far more sweeping entitlement or employer-mandate.
Rather conservatives ought to work to ensure that this effort is targeted to those who really need it—workers with lower incomes and who lack paid leave benefits—but doesn't needlessly up-end the employment contracts of the majority of full-time workers who like their current benefit arrangements or who have the resources to make provisions on their own. We don't want a new paid leave entitlement program to do to our compensation system what Obamacare did to health insurance. Conservatives need to focus on preserving true flexibility and choice. After all, some workers don't want or need paid leave benefits, would rather have higher take-home pay and make their own provisions, and that ought to be their right.
Americans understand that there is a trade-off between more generous benefits and take home pay. They also intuitively understand how these efforts – which are sold as a boon to women – run the risk of backfiring on women by making them less attractive potential hires. Research from Europe shows that this isn't just a theoretical possibility. Generous family leave programs are associated with lower pay and reduced opportunities for women, which should give anyone who cares about women's advancement pause.
This should be the beginning of a rigorous discussion on the pros and cons of different approaches to helping workers who could use more support when they need time-off from work. Conservatives should be ready to explain the pitfalls and downsides of these proposals, but shouldn't shy away from having this discussion.