The states are meant to be laboratories of democracy. Let’s hope Republicans learn the right lessons from states like Colorado.
Paid-leave proposals are overwhelmingly popular with the public: Eighty-two percent of voters support legislation to expand paid family leave, and 78 percent specifically support a government fund for paid family and medical leave.
Perhaps support for these proposals is so high because voters rarely hear about the downsides. Those include not just a considerable tax hit but also fewer employment opportunities and the loss of current employer-provided benefits. Americans also frequently hear that the status quo is a near-crisis, as only 13 percent of Americans have paid family-leave benefits at work. But this statistic is misleading; most full-time workers have access to and use paid time off, whether through sick leave, personal leave, or vacation time. It just isn’t categorized as “family leave.”
To be sure, there are certainly many workers who lack paid leave and who already live paycheck to paycheck and face real hardship when they need time off from work. About half of low-income parents who lack leave end up on some form of government assistance after their baby is born, making it less likely they will return to work at all. This reality — and Americans’ compassion for struggling families — makes opposing government action hard. The president has called on Congress to develop a plan to expand access to paid leave. Some conservative organizations have even embraced a watered-down version of the Democrats’ entitlement plan.
Nationally, businesses often become frustrated with a patchwork of state and local laws. If enough states enact paid-leave entitlement programs, business interests may flip from opposing a paid-leave entitlement to supporting a national solution to replace or streamline multiple state and local programs.
Thoughtful conservatives are looking for ways to thread the needle and expand access to paid family leave without growing government, by making our existing safety-net programs better rather than bigger. Independent Women’s Forum proposed allowing individual workers to choose to delay their Social Security retirement benefits in exchange for parental benefits following the birth or adoption of a child.
This “earned leave” approach — now being advanced in the Senate by Republicans Marco Rubio (Fla.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), and Mike Lee (Utah), and in the House of Representatives by Ann Wagner (R., Mo.) — would be a far better federal solution than Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D., N.Y.) FAMILY Act, a costly new one-size-fits-all entitlement program.
The political drama of Washington, D.C., may dominate the news, but some of the nation’s most critical policy debates are happening in statehouses. We can learn not only from the policies they enact but also from how political realities play out. Republicans in particular ought to wake up, play close attention to Colorado, and prepare for the fight ahead.