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A paid leave plan cannot make you choose between kids or retirement

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With great fanfare, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has introduced a Senate bill, backed by Ivanka Trump, to create a national paid leave program. What is the upshot? You get to either have a baby or grow old. The failure of our country to have paid leave laws is a national embarrassment long decried by progressives and people who care about families.

According to a United Nations study of 185 countries, only the United States and Papua New Guinea have no paid leave requirements for new mothers. But even Papua New Guinea might soon leave us in the dust, as the government there has announced a review of its maternity leave laws. It is a sign of how broad the consensus is on the need for paid leave that even the Trump administration and its allies have come up with at least something. So what is that something that Rubio hatched up?

{mosads}According to a summary from his office, the bill would let new parents borrow from their own future Social Security benefits to pay for two months of paid leave after having or adopting a child. In exchange, they would have to delay the date at which they begin receiving Social Security benefits by three to six months per benefit taken. The bill promises that most parents making below $70,000 would be allowed to receive more than 70 percent of their wages for the two months.

This is a bad idea for so many reasons. For starters, the bill is only for parental leave, not comprehensive paid family leave, which people need in order to care for ailing parents, spouses, other close relatives, and also themselves when they are ill. Paid leave is not just about parenting and procreation. Even a consummate bachelor may love his parents and want to be there for them when they are sick or old or dying.

More broadly, the basic premise of the bill is utterly flawed. Social Security is only fully funded for around the next 15 years. The bill would add further pressure upon the system. So why should Americans have to fund paid leave through later retirements? The current average Social Security benefit amount is about $1,340 per month, or a little more than $16,000 per year, with lower wage workers getting even less. This amount is already insufficient to sustain almost anyone today.

For a person with three children who takes six months of leave, the bill could delay retirement a full year and a half. This may not be a big deal for a lawyer or manager, but it is a very different proposition for a roofer or teacher. Lower income people, who disproportionately rely on Social Security as their primary source of income, are more likely to hold the physically strenuous jobs that necessitate earlier retirements.

The folly of this proposal is highlighted by a troubling study that came out earlier this week. It reported an almost fivefold increase in the percentage of people age 65 and older in our bankruptcy system. The study, which is a dystopian page turner even if you are not a policy wonk, reported that older Americans face inadequate income and unmanageable health care costs, resulting from a shrinking safety net and the shift of risk from government and employers to individuals themselves.

In this landscape, who would possibly consider the paid family leave question and come up with “delay retirement benefits” as the answer? Is there any shared investment in babies, families, the elderly, and the ailing? Can we maybe agree that people should be able to have a job and care for their families and retire with dignity at a reasonable age? Even if you focus only on paid parental leave, why would you want to discourage people from taking it by penalizing them with a later retirement?

Do we not have an interest in making sure the next generation gets a good start? Rubio and I are around the same age. When we are geriatric and having heart attacks and strokes, who is going to drive the ambulance to the hospital? Who is going to make sure the roads are paved and the traffic lights work? Who is going to treat our ailments? Who is going to change our bedpans and take care of us as we recover?

The next generation is who. So let us do this in a sensible manner. Let us come up with something better than a bizarre plan that offers people no choice. There is no need to even go back to the drawing board because there is a real paid family leave proposal already out there. It is the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act. This sensible bill should draw bipartisan support because it is feasible and what the country needs. We can get there before Papua New Guinea, but please, let us get it right.

Terri Gerstein is a labor and work life fellow at Harvard Law School and a leadership in government fellow at Open Society Foundations. She is a former labor bureau chief in the office of the New York attorney general.

Tags Congress Family Government Ivanka Trump Labor Marco Rubio Retirement

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