Everyone wants people to have paid time off from work when they need it, particularly when welcoming a new child to the family. That doesn’t mean we should let politicians decide who gets to take leave or make workers jump through slow bureaucratic hoops to find out if their leave is approved. 

Conservatives believe that individuals and families should be in charge of the decisions that matter most to them. Yet, now that abortion is restricted in certain states, some conservatives appear ready to support a new federal paid family leave entitlement to show support for women.

Such support is misguided. Women facing unplanned pregnancies need far more than a few weeks or months of partial paychecks to ease their concerns, and a one-size-fits-all federal paid family leave program would be ineffective, disruptive, and costly. 

Government Checks Don’t Solve Parents’ Concerns

Women facing unplanned pregnancies have many concerns, including the stability of their relationships, job, income, housing security, and future child-care options. Paid time off certainly helps, but a new entitlement — providing something like six or 12 weeks of leave at 67 percent pay — is unlikely to sway most women’s decisions about whether or not to give birth. 

Other factors, like flexible work options and access to affordable child care, are bigger concerns for parents. According to a 2018 poll by the Cato Institute: 26 percent of parents said that a more flexible work schedule was their top priority for balancing work and family; 23 percent cited the ability to work remotely; and 20 percent listed more affordable child care. By comparison, 10 percent said more paid parental leave.

Fortunately, flexible and remote work options have surged in recent years, and the tight labor market has led employers to meet workers’ demands for greater flexibility. Not surprisingly, a recent economic study found that remote work increases family formation and fertility. 

One-Size-Fits-All Leave Programs Hurt the Most Vulnerable

Government paid family leave programs are supposed to be especially helpful for low-income workers. In practice, however, they are regressive, taxing everyone but providing little or negative value to lower-income workers.   

In Rhode Island, for example, the state’s paid leave benefits replace approximately 60 percent of an individual’s typical wages. But women living paycheck-to-paycheck can’t get by on a 40 percent pay cut. Consequently, women in lower-income households are far less likely to use those benefits than women who are better off. Yet the payroll taxes funding the government program are taken from everyone’s paychecks. 

In California, 38 percent of the workforce earns wages below $20,000, yet only 1 percent of those low-wage workers use the state’s paid family leave program. Workers in the highest income bracket (above $84,000) were five times more likely to file paid family leave claims with the state as those in the lowest income bracket (below $12,000). 

In the District of Columbia, workers have to specify exactly what days they will be out when they apply for benefits, they can’t take anything less than full days for things like prenatal doctor’s appointments, and if they do any work on a day that they receive benefits, they are liable for repaying those benefits or being cut off from future benefits.

Washington state’s program faced significant shortcomings from the beginning, with workers having to wait until they had a need for leave to file a request and then having to wait weeks or months to find out if they were eligible. And as has been the case with all federal entitlement programs, the state’s own actuarial analysis shows the program is running multimillion-dollar deficits after just two years. 

Federal Involvement Will Drain the Support Parents Already Have

While government programs are necessarily rigid and bureaucratic, employer-provided programs can be far more flexible, accommodating, and generous. But a federal program could displace employer-provided benefits just as they’re expanding.

Over just the past five years, the percentage of workers with access to paid family leave increased 67 percent. That was not the result of a government fiat; it was driven by workers desiring paid leave and employers desiring to attract and retain valuable employees. In addition to employers’ paid family and medical leave programs, 43 percent of private sector workers have access to short-term disability insurance that provides paid leave for workers’ own medical conditions, including pregnancy and childbirth. 

Moreover, roughly 1 in 3 Americans lives in the 13 states (plus D.C.) that have enacted state paid family leave programs. A federal program would complicate these systems, as well as encourage employers to drop existing benefits and require employees to use the federal program they will have to help fund. The result will be less flexibility and more red tape for employers and employees alike. 

Paid leave programs are unfair to families in which just one parent works, too. A stay-at-home mom receives no support, while her husband pays taxes on each paycheck and receives far less in benefits than a dual-earning couple.   

And then there’s the matter of cost. Americans can’t afford another unfunded entitlement program. Already, Social Security has accumulated more than $150,000 in unfunded obligations for every household in America, with Medicare adding more than twice that. 

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that revenues to fund Democrats’ proposed 2019 Family Act would fall short of the program’s expenses just one year after benefits were to begin and costs would soar to 240 percent of the program’s revenues within six years. Instead of costing “a cup of coffee a week,” government paid family leave could end up costing a whole bag of groceries. That’s particularly true since, while conservatives may hope that this program would be focused solely on new parents, inevitably others will push to cover loved ones’ illnesses, personal illness, bereavement, and many other equally compelling family situations. 

Better Solutions

Policies like the Working Families Flexibility Act would help expand flexibility and paid family leave for lower-income workers by allowing private sector hourly workers to have the same ability as public sector workers to choose if they want to accumulate paid time off in exchange for overtime work. 

Universal Savings Accounts would help workers of all income levels save in one simple account for all purposes — whether for paid family leave, child care, college savings, retirement, or an unusually high electricity bill or unexpected car repair. 

And perhaps the most important thing policymakers can do is to break down government restrictions that prevent family and friends, religious and charitable organizations, and businesses from doing more to help. While prescriptive government programs undermine families and civil society, removing unnecessary regulations on family child-care providers, tweaking the compensation classification of employer-provided child care to enable more companies to offer onsite daycare, easing overtime regulations so that more workers can have remote work options, and minimizing taxes and regulations that make it harder for employers to provide family-friendly benefits would all help empower women and families.

Conservatives, like all Americans, want to help families in need, but there is simply nothing conservative about imposing a one-size-fits-all federal paid leave entitlement.