Washington Post opinion columnist Elizabeth Bruenig published an intriguing piece this morning that criticizes a new paid-family-leave plan being promoted by Ivanka Trump and Senator Marco Rubio.
The plan would offer new parents the opportunity to collect Social Security benefits early for several weeks after the birth of their child. To offset the cost, the parents would agree to delay collecting benefits upon retirement.
In her column, Bruenig says that the plan “would penalize the elderly” who raised families, and punish bigger families more than smaller ones. But the Ivanka-Rubio plan can’t rightly be called a “punishment”: Participation in the plan would be entirely voluntary, and would not cut the benefits of those who choose to participate, but shift their disbursement forward in time. If Social Security is meant to function as insurance rather than as welfare, this is exactly how it should operate: You withdraw the “insurance” money you paid in when you need it.
It’s one thing for Bruenig to argue that the federal government must do more to encourage family growth and stability, by which she seems to mean taking funds from general taxation and providing much more aid to families than we do now. In her view, an adequate plan would likely provide couples money at the time of a child’s birth, immediately upon reaching retirement age, and at other points in between. But, given her aims, there’s no conceivable way for Bruenig to argue that the Rubio–Ivanka proposal is worse than the status quo. It may not be enough to please Bruenig, but the proposal would indeed provide benefits to couples who need assistance to take time off work after childbirth. Again, delaying retirement benefits to offset the cost isn’t “punishment” — it’s a freely chosen shifting of the exact same benefits to the time when a couple decides they need it most. For the supporter of paid family leave, there is no denying that this proposal would be an improvement.
What troubles me more about Bruenig’s piece, though, is its suggestion that being authentically pro-family and pro-children requires embracing one specific — and extreme — model of government action. I’m fairly sure Bruenig and I largely agree in principle on the societal value (necessity, even) of family and the importance of fostering a culture that makes it easier to welcome children and care for them. But my embrace of that view is not rendered null by my belief that an ever-expansive welfare state is neither the necessary end of pro-family philosophy nor a practical way to run a pro-family government.
“It’s worth a tax to see that families aren’t penalized for bringing forth new generations, and that the elderly have time to rest and look back on their lives with satisfaction. It’s worth the support of society at large,” Bruenig’s piece concludes. Here she summarizes both a particular philosophy and a practical judgment: that family deserves societal support and that achieving societal support requires a tax. One can authentically agree with the former while disagreeing with the latter.
When I made a remark to this effect on Twitter this morning, Bruenig replied to me, “You can be philosophically anything without being practically whatever that entails.” In that case, perhaps Bruenig should consider the impracticality of her own commitment to a constant stream of federal financial assistance for families. The Ivanka–Rubio proposal is the most feasible paid-family-leave plan yet put forth because it works entirely within our existing welfare system to give new parents a benefit they don’t currently receive without requiring the authorization of any new government spending. By contrast, Bruenig’s preferred policy of a child allowance would both require a large-scale tax increase and be dead on arrival in Congress. If embracing practical paid-leave policies makes you a supporter of family, Rubio and Ms. Trump deserve a pro-family award; their proposal might actually make it into law someday.
The same could be said of the effort Rubio led, with Utah senator Mike Lee, to make the child tax credit refundable against payroll taxes in the GOP tax-reform bill. This was an effort Democrats (and many Republicans) opposed as a matter of political gamesmanship — but at least it got to the floor. The kinds of welfare policies Bruenig tends to favor have next to no chance of becoming U.S. law and can find only a tenuous foothold under our Constitution. In the U.S., at least, her ideas are more philosophy than policy.
I agree with Bruenig that healthy families are necessary for a healthy society. But the Rubio–Ivanka plan is the first to both recognize that reality and advance a practical, effective policy to match. Pro-family advocates such as Bruenig would do well not to spurn would-be allies who have a different — and more feasible — vision for promoting the same broad ends.
Editor’s Note: The Rubio–Ivanka policy proposal was first authored by Kristin Shapiro in conjunction with the Independent Women’s Forum.