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Op-ed: In search of paid family leave built for America

Some form of widely available paid leave seems attractive, and the country agrees. A 2016 poll found that 74 percent of registered voters support paid family leave for new parents.
Some form of widely available paid leave seems attractive, and the country agrees. A 2016 poll found that 74 percent of registered voters support paid family leave for new parents.
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Buried in the middle of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address last week buzzed a little blurb that might have flown past the ears of the casual listener. Sandwiched between an expansive infrastructure proposal and the details of an immigration deal was a simple nod to the American family: “And let's support working families by supporting paid family leave,” said Trump to a smattering of applause.

Democrats might have felt like rolling their eyes, while clapping Republicans might have nervously asked themselves, “Do we actually want this?”

The reality is that paid family leave is an idea whose time has come for the American family, and we need a program that’s uniquely tailored to America’s needs.

The nation’s shifting workplace dynamics mean making adjustments to keep the family at the forefront of public policy. As of 2016, 61 percent of families with children had both parents in the workforce. Whether out of necessity or choice, parents are more likely to be employed than before, leading to certain challenges when raising children.

It’s often difficult for a mother or father to take extended periods of leave from their work to care for a new child, with lower-income workers feeling the brunt of the problem. These parents are less likely to work for large corporations that offer generous benefits, and, without the guarantee of job-protected leave, many low-wage earners either feel the need to get back to work as soon as possible after welcoming a new child or quit their jobs entirely. Neither option is good for economic production in the long run, nor does either offer working families support to raise strong children.

Some form of widely available paid leave, then, seems attractive, and the country agrees. A 2016 poll found that 74 percent of registered voters support paid family leave for new parents.

With bipartisan agreement that working parents need a helping hand — ranging from Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D.-Ill., to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah — the debate should center on what a paid family leave program should look like, as well as what it will cost. But most proposals do little to look beyond tired norms to find a truly American solution.

New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act, for example, is clearly rooted in the desire to help the average family raise children, but its mechanics smack of another entitlement program estimated to cost taxpayers $85.9 billion per year. In the long run, such hefty programs only drag on the economy, and they run the risk of benefiting middle-income workers while leaving low-wage earners in a lurch. These universal proposals also crowd out free-market solutions, which have the potential to be more generous than government-funded programs.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is crafting a different approach. His working plan would allow parents to withdraw Social Security benefits when they have a new child, thus delaying benefits for the same duration at retirement. It’s an inventive concept, apparently appealing to Ivanka Trump — a longtime paid family leave supporter — but the finer details have yet to materialize. And in Rubio’s words, “We still have to work on members of my own party” before the idea stands a chance in Congress.

Still another option is to establish tax-preferred savings accounts into which parents deposit money in anticipation of welcoming a new child. The government would offer tax incentives to companies that match employee contributions or that offer company paid leave benefits, much like Sen. Deb Fischer's, R-Neb., tax credit in the recent tax reform bill. Government assistance would be minimal and targeted only to low-wage earners, contingent upon their own deposits into an account.

Regardless of the approach, tackling such legislation will be a monumental effort. But it can be done by focusing on sound principles. Principles will always resonate with the American people more than partisan platforms. As such, any paid leave program should be deficit-neutral (better yet, reduce the deficit), should target working families who most need the help and shouldn’t compete with a company’s choice to treat its employees well with generous benefits.

The lemminglike justification that the U.S. needs a paid family leave program because it is the only civilized country in the world without one is rote and perhaps the worst motivation for crafting any sort of policy. What the country needs is meaningful debate with input from thought leaders on all sides. Open and honest deliberation will build the foundation for a paid family leave program that’s tailor-made for American families.

Christian Sagers is the editorial assistant for the Deseret News opinion section.