Mother’s Day is a time to show love and appreciation not just for our own moms specifically, but for moms generally for the important role they play in society. Americans want to do more than just offer cards, showers, and words of encouragement: They want policies that support women and ease some of the pressures that moms face today.
This desire to help parents—and moms in particular—underlies the increased national attention on expanding access to paid time off from work, particularly for families after the birth or adoption of a child. The good news is that companies are increasingly providing paid leave benefits even absent a public policy change: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 94 percent of full-time, civilian workers have access to some form of paid time off from work. And although fewer workers have access to paid family leave in particular, this benefit is becoming more common: Numerous companies expanded their benefit packages, including for hourly and lower-wage workers, when the new tax laws took effect. We all want this trend to continue.
Yet many families still struggle from a lack of paid time off when they need it. Pew Research Center surveyed employed adults who wanted or needed time off from work but lacked paid-leave benefits. Seventeen percent — and 48 percent of those with incomes under $30,000 — reported going on public assistance to finance their parental leave. People want new parents to have better options.
Research conducted by Hearts and Minds for Independent Women’s Forum of 2,010 people in a nationally representative poll found just that: 73 percent of Americans “strongly or somewhat” support a federal paid leave policy. The desire for action is bipartisan: Six out of ten conservatives and Republicans support a federal paid leave policy, along with seven out of ten Independents, eight out of ten Democrats and nearly nine out of ten self-identified liberals.
Yet this general desire for policymakers to expand access to paid leave doesn’t mean that Americans want government to take over the provision of paid leave entirely.
While there was broad agreement on the benefits of expanding paid leave (time to bond with a new child (65 percent) and adjust to a new family situation (60 percent), Americans recognize the considerable drawbacks of federal actions. Nearly half of respondents agreed that they were concerned that a federal paid leave program would be abused. Four-in-ten are concerned about the lack of fairness for those without children (38 percent) and the costs associated with higher taxes needed to fund the plan (37 percent). Among those who oppose any federal paid leave policy, six-in-ten worry that it would discourage businesses from providing their own benefits.
This research suggests that Americans want an approach that threads the needle — providing support for parents who need it, but without unfairly shifting costs to others, growing government, or discouraging employers from providing benefits on their own. When asked about different principles for how any federal paid leave program ought to work, 78 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “Workers should have as much control and flexibility as possible over the benefits and money they have earned.” Nearly two-thirds also want a plan to be fiscally responsible, agreeing with the statement, “Paid leave should be budget neutral over the long term, meaning it shouldn't increase the total amount of money the government spends. It should not increase the financial burden on those who do not need the benefit.”
Given these preferences, it’s not surprising that when asked about current proposals, the one that offered more flexibility to workers and didn’t impose a new payroll tax had the highest level of support.
Fifty percent of respondents strongly (23 percent) or somewhat (27 percent) support the concept of Earned Leave, the proposal that would allow eligible new parents to opt to receive some of their Social Security benefits early, in exchange for delaying their retirement benefits to make up for those costs. Another 25 percent slightly support this concept, while just 16 percent strongly (9 percent) or somewhat (7 percent) oppose it. There was slightly less support, and more opposition, to the FAMILY Act, which would require all workers pay a new payroll tax to fund a new government benefit for all eligible workers. The FAMILY Act was strongly (20 percent) or somewhat (25 percent) supported by 45 percent, while 19 percent were strongly (11 percent) or somewhat (8 percent) opposed to it.
People liked that Earned Leave wouldn’t require new taxes, would be budget neutral over the long term, and would only impact those who elect to participate, but there were concerns. Seven-in-ten agree that Social Security needs reform and worry that giving workers new options for when they can access their benefits could worsen its finances. Half worry that Earned Leave, like other federal paid leave options, would discourage employers from providing benefits on their own.
Proponents of Earned Leave need to address these concerns: The good news is that studies by the Social Security Administration show voluntary parental leave benefits can be incorporated into Social Security without impacting its long-term financial health. Moreover, while any government paid leave program could ease pressure on businesses to offer workers such benefits, Earned Leave would have minimal effect on existing arrangements. Earned Leave wouldn’t impose new taxes or mandates on business, and workers would face a trade-off, meaning employer-provided leave still has value (workers with employer-paid parental leave would not have to consider delaying their retirement benefits). This minimizes the risk that employers will alter existing benefits, but offers an important new option for those who today lack access to any paid parental leave from work.
Of course, all plans come with trade-offs. Policymakers should keep this in mind and recognize that Americans want to honor moms and help families by expanding access to paid leave benefits, but they also want to preserve flexibility, personal responsibility and fairness for everyone.