Is it better for a government program to provide a stream of payments on a set schedule or to give people some ability to tailor when they get that support so that they get help when they need it most?

That's the real question at the heart of the debate about whether to reform Social Security to give workers the ability to access some of their benefits following the birth or adoption of a child, in exchange for delaying their eligibility for retirement benefits.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board criticizes Senator Rubio's proposal to introduce such flexibility as an expansion of government, but adding flexibility to a program is very different from expanding one.

The Wall Street Journal faults the Senator for overstating how many people currently lack paid leave benefits – which is an important point.  Most full-time workers do have access to some form of paid time off, which means that any government program ought to seek to minimize disruption of existing benefits.  That's actually a point in Rubio's proposal's favor compared to other paid leave plans:  unlike mandates on employers or across the board entitlement programs, since this program wouldn't require significant new costs for businesses, few would dump existing benefits and push workers into a system that requires them to trade off future retirement benefits for paid leave.

But most of the criticism of the Rubio proposal centers on the idea that this would expand government by making new parents eligible for an early Social Security benefit.  This critique overlooks that many of those who lack paid leave benefits end up on other forms of government assistance anyway.  And in fact, this reform has the potential to reduce taxpayers' overall burdens by encouraging people to use their own money for paid leave through Social Security and then return to work, rather than staying on food stamps and other forms of welfare that don't require any trade-offs for a much longer period.

Like others, the Wall Street Journal scoffs at the idea that Social Security could require people who take a benefit early to pay it back in the future.  This ignores that Social Security already incorporates such trade-offs, such as by allowing people to retire early in exchange for lower monthly payments.  Those who took early retirement at age 62—including those with lower incomes—are much like those who would opt to take parental leave at 28.  Both may someday wish that they hadn't taken their payout early, but people also understand that they must live with those decisions.  Just as there is no political will to somehow forgive those who took early retirement and restore their full monthly benefits, there is no reason to think that those who take parental leave will have such political power as to win a special exemption and have their overall benefit levels increased.

Yes, Social Security has a long-term financial challenge which needs to be addressed.  That is true today and would be true if Senator Rubio's proposal became law.  Yet that isn't a reason not to try to make our social support systems more responsive to workers' actual needs.

It isn't conservative or free market to be married to the idea that Social Security's current payment schedule must be set in stone.  Introducing some flexibility and the concept of trade-offs into the discussion about how to reform the system could even build support for future, needed reforms. Providing a life line to those who really need it might also take the wind out of the push to create entirely new paid leave entitlement programs at the state and federal level, which would require new payroll taxes and certainly burden taxpayers and make workplaces less flexible.

That doesn't mean that this proposed reform is without flaws: slippery slope concerns ought to be considered and conservatives should be vigilant in making sure the concept of trade-offs remains fully intact.  But calls to modernize Social Security aren’t the same as “raiding” it.  We should debate the merits and drawbacks of this proposal without embracing the most misleading terminology of the Left.