Bipartisan consensus on paid family leave is a terrible thing to waste

Bipartisan consensus on paid family leave is a terrible thing to waste
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Earlier this month, a bipartisan group convened by the American Enterprise Institute and The Brookings Institution released a report about paid family and medical leave.

I was delighted to be part of this group, but I’m fearful that the result, described in The Hill by co-chairs Aparna Mathur and Isabel Sawhill, will set policymakers off in the wrong direction.

We should have reached agreement, but did not, on a plan that could meet Americans’ need for paid family leave. The effort failed despite a growing body of evidence demonstrating that: 

  • Existing state paid leave programs are effective and affordable;
  • demographic and labor force trends reinforce the need for family caregiving leave; and
  • cost estimates show a comprehensive national paid family and medical leave plan is affordable.

The working group’s shortcoming is especially disappointing because there are so few issues today upon which policymakers on both sides of the political aisle in Washington can agree. Paid family leave to care for a seriously ill loved one should be among them.

President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWarren says Republican party 'eating itself and it is discovering that the meal is poisonous' More than 75 Asian, LGBTQ groups oppose anti-Asian crime bill McConnell says he's 'great admirer' of Liz Cheney but mum on her removal MORE embraced paid parental leave in his 2017 and 2018 State of the Union addresses to Congress, joining Democrats who have championed paid leave for years.

The Senate Finance Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions, and Family Policy held a bipartisan hearing on paid family leave this summer at which witnesses essentially agreed that it’s past time for the country to adopt a national paid leave policy. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have and are expected to continue to introduce paid leave proposals.

One reason paid family leave is popular across Capitol Hill is that’s where voters are. A recent study by the Pew Research Center finds that 67 percent of Americans support paid family leave.

 A new survey by the National Partnership for Women & Families found that eight out of 10 voters support a comprehensive national paid family and medical leave plan that covers people for all of the reasons included in the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

The Family and Medical Leave Act required employers to provide leave to care for a new child, a seriously ill loved one or their own serious health condition or to address circumstances arising from a military deployment. 

What’s more, the National Partnership survey showed that 84 percent of voters are willing to pay for this proposal through payroll deductions and seven in 10 would be willing to pay much more than a comprehensive national program would cost.

Support is broad because very few people have paid family leave and unpaid leave, which is all that federal law currently provides, is unaffordable.

In light of this, the working group’s failure to reach consensus is disappointing. It is especially puzzling because this isn’t a fanciful idea — states have been road-testing it for over a decade.

The six states and the District of Columbia that have or will soon have paid family and medical leave programs show that these programs help families and are sustainably funded without draining state coffers. They enable businesses to retain their workers and increase productivity, all the while helping to boost state economic growth.

Every one of the programs is efficiently matching revenues to costs and is funded through modest payroll taxes. None have been the focus of rollbacks or investigations of misuse, or a source of financial hardship for lower-wage workers or small businesses.

Talk about state and local governments as successful laboratories of policymaking! What’s not to like?

Yet, our group of academic and policy experts could not agree that these state models provide a launching pad or model for federal legislation.

A year ago, this same working group agreed upon an initial compromise that embraced only the idea of parental leave. Its second report was supposed to examine the evidence of the importance of family paid leave, not just parental leave.

But this new report doesn’t measure up. In the face of all the evidence about benefits, cost savings and affordability, the group couldn’t agree to move forward with a recommendation for a comprehensive national paid family leave plan based on state best practices.

Bipartisanship is a terrible thing to waste. We have a moment to seize. Let’s not let the need for unattainably perfect evidence impede the progress that’s possible for all working families.

As the United States crafts a paid leave plan, we must not leave anyone behind. More evidence can help us perfect a plan, but surely we should all be able to agree that there’s enough to get started. 

Heather Boushey is executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.