Some conservatives are disappointed that Republicans such as Sens. Joni Ernst, Mike Lee, Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney, and Reps. Ann Wagner and Dan Crenshaw propose reforming Social Security to give parents the option to take a share of their benefits for parental leave, a concept first introduced by the Independent Women’s Forum.
In The Federalist, for instance, Joy Pullmann wrote: “To shuffle government subsidies while steadfastly refusing to get the country’s finances in order is surreally irresponsible — and from the party that promotes itself as the fiscally responsible ones, no less.”
She is certainly right that it’s irresponsible not to prioritize making Social Security sustainable. I’m confident that everyone who supports the IWF’s Social Security Earned Leave (SSEL) concept would applaud commonsense changes to Social Security’s future benefits to bring the program’s costs in line with its projected income.
However, it’s unclear why, absent a grand bargain making Social Security sustainable, modernizing Social Security to give parents some control over when they collect benefits is “surreally irresponsible.” SSEL doesn’t increase how much anyone gets from Social Security. It just gives people more flexibility over timing.
Yes, some benefits will be taken earlier, and deferrals come later at retirement. But the proposed parental leave benefits are a modest puddle in Social Security’s ocean of retirement and disability payments. Initial estimates found that SSEL would advance the Social Security Trust Fund’s insolvency by a couple of months. The new proposals specify that transition funding will be used to ensure that the trust fund is unaffected.
More importantly, conservatives have long understood that the trust fund, which holds government bonds, is just an intra-governmental accounting device that distracts from Social Security’s fundamental structural problems of having promised more retirement benefits than it can afford with current payroll taxes. This is true now and would remain true if SSEL passed. Passing SSEL won’t make fixing Social Security meaningfully harder or easier.
Some also see SSEL as another step away from limited government and personal responsibility. Ms. Pullmann writes: “It seems most Republicans still believe that taxpayers are the appropriate sponsors of every single possible wish that an American could have, rather than seeing government as a constitutionally limited institution “
I understand her frustration: Government has taken over far too much of private life. Yet, casting SSEL as an expansion of government overlooks how government already effectively is in the paid leave business. Currently, 17 percent of workers, and nearly 50 percent for low-income workers, who lack paid parental leave go on government assistance to finance leave. In other words, taxpayers already frequently “sponsor” leave through existing safety net programs.
And importantly, SSEL, unlike every other government safety net program, comes with a trade-off so that costs aren’t shifted to taxpayers. In fact, if SSEL encourages some who would have taken other forms of government assistance to instead essentially take a loan from Social Security and return to work (and therefore resume paying taxes, helping Social Security’s bottomline), this could reduce government dependence, rather than add to it.
Some are also concerned that SSEL sends the message that parents (particularly mothers) shouldn’t take more than a month or two out of the workforce after having a baby: Her job is to hurry up, stick the baby in day care and get back to work. This undermines the value of stay-at-home moms and the understanding that caring for children isn’t a distraction, but the priority and really requires two parents, one to earn and another to provide loving care.
This is a worthy consideration. Stay-at-home parents provide tremendous value, not just to families, but their communities. That message shouldn’t be lost. One of the benefits of SSEL is that — unlike other paid-leave proposals which tax all workers — this approach doesn’t create new costs and make it harder for families with a single earner. Only those who opt to take the benefit are affected by SSEL.
But the reality is that 40 percent of babies born today are to a single parent. If that woman can’t work, then she is likely to have trouble supporting herself and need government aid. The longer she stays out of the workforce and on welfare, the harder it will be for her to get off and become self-sufficient.
While there are tremendous benefits for babies and young children to be cared for full-time by loving parents, there are also benefits to children growing up in households with employed and self-sufficient parents. That’s why we structure other support programs to provide temporary assistance, and encourage people who are able to work to do so, to minimize the problems associated with long-term dependency.
Ideally, all children would have the support of two parents and a larger community. But we aren’t close to that today. That doesn’t mean we give up on that vision: We need to make sure that government programs don’t push us further from that direction. But we also can’t ignore the role government already plays today or give up on reforming existing programs to make them more efficient at providing short-term assistance, rather than fostering long-term dependency.
Certainly there are drawbacks and political risks to SSEL. But there are also tremendous drawbacks and risks to continuing with the status quo, as well as to enacting a more sweeping new paid leave entitlement program. That’s why it’s important to debate these options thoroughly to find the path that’s true to our ideals, but not ignorant of reality.