SALT LAKE CITY — The majority of Americans want paid time off for new parents, especially moms, but when asked to consider four national policy proposals that would either guarantee payment or provide more flexibility for working families, the consensus crumbles.

That’s according to the newly released 2019 American Family Survey, a nationally representative survey of 3,000 people that shows two thirds of Republicans, three quarters of independents, and more than 90% of Democrats support at least some form of paid leave. While large majorities of Democrats think a national policy should cover maternity leave, paternity leave, leave for caregivers of sick children, and leave for caregivers of adult family members including parents, the majority of Republicans support only maternity leave.

For years, debate has stalled congressional progress on the issue as conservatives have argued that a uniform paid leave policy would decrease wages and be an inefficient way to meet the needs of millions of workers in diverse situations. Today, the United States is the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee paid time off for family or medical needs. And it’s poorer Americans who struggle the most.

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The American Family Survey found Americans with higher incomes were more likely to take paid leave, while those with lower incomes were more likely to take unpaid leave. Poorer Americans were also twice as likely to say they did not take a leave in the past year, but they would have if it had been available. The American Family Survey is a joint project of the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, conducted by YouGov.  

A national leave policy would be a boon to new moms like Alexis Steck, 25, who lives in Midvale, Utah, with her 4-week old baby girl, Nova. Steck is currently taking six weeks of unpaid leave from her housekeeping job at a hotel. To make ends meet, she has applied for financial assistance through Utah’s family employment program and for food stamps. The recovery and adjustment process has been “a struggle” but is getting better every day, Steck said. She is tired and overwhelmed and some days she still wakes up in pain. Still, she says, “I love being a mother. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced and very much a blessing.” 

The thought of going back to work in two weeks is daunting. 

Alexis Steck plays with her 4-week-old baby, Nova Elizabeth Carter, at home in Midvale, Utah, on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. Steck is on unpaid maternity leave. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“I don’t want to go back to work, but my financial assistance doesn’t give me that much,” said Steck. “If I had three months paid leave, I could spend more time with my daughter, and I could go back to work when I’m ready to go back to work,” said Steck.  

Partisan differences are stark, and getting Republicans on board will be necessary for any solution. Not only are Democrats more likely to support paid leave in more circumstances, but they also advocate for longer leaves. For example, Democrats on average think maternity leave should be 4.5 months, compared to 2.3 months for Republicans. Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar in economic policy with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says mounting bipartisan support for paid leave is moving the conversation forward. 

American Family Survey | American Family Survey

“Representatives are getting more creative and realizing there are ways to do it where all of the costs are not being borne by businesses and the repercussions for employees are not likely to be as adverse,” said Mathur, who worked on a report co-published with the Brookings Institution titled, “Paid family and medical leave: an issue whose time has come.”

President Donald Trump’s proposed 2020 budget plan would provide six weeks of paid leave for new parents and calls for a $1 billion fund that would help workers and employers create child-care programs. Ivanka Trump has been instrumental in discussing the issue with Republican leaders behind the scenes, said Mathur.

Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are working on solutions. Two Republican-backed proposals would have workers dip into their own Social Security benefits, delaying retirement in exchange for time off after the birth of a new child or adoption. Another allows for tax exemption for personal parental savings accounts. A Democrat-sponsored bill would create a new employer and employee payroll tax and allow every worker who pays in to access funds for a variety of needs. But none of these approaches are supported by a majority of Americans, according to the American Family Survey.

More recently, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., introduced a bipartisan proposal that would give new parents the option to bring forward their recently increased child tax credit to receive a $5,000 benefit. Like other Republican bills, it does not help cover leave for caregivers of sick family members.

“Everyone likes the idea of paid family leave until you start talking about how to pay for it,” said Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, another conservative institution. The costs and problems associated with creating new government interventions are the reason Americans have not been able to agree on legislation, she said.

“No one questions the benefits,” said de Rugy, who is opposed to all proposed national paid family leave policies. “But there are massive costs involved.” 

The benefits

According to the American Family Survey, new parents make up a minority of those who need paid family leave. Only a quarter of Americans who took leave over the past year took maternity or paternity leave, compared to 47% of Americans who took leave to care for a spouse, parent or child. The New York Times reported that the lack of support for eldercare as the population ages — and the fact that the responsibility often falls to female family members — explains why women’s workforce participation in the U.S. has stopped increasing. Now, 1 in 4 caregivers is a millennial, in the midst of their prime working years, according to a new AARP study

Lizzy Cupples is pictured with her father, Gordon King, on her wedding day in 2016. Six months after Cupples’s wedding, King was diagnosed with cancer and passed away shortly thereafter. | Lizzy Cupples

Lizzy Cupples, 34, from Mesa, Arizona, was offered eight weeks of paid leave to care for her father after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. At the time, she worked remotely for Apple doing technical support. 

“It was such a blessing to spend time with him and have time to make sure all of his affairs were in order,” Cupples said. 

In contrast, Aimee Boyd, 42, works three jobs to support herself and her four kids in Ammon, Idaho. Her 14-year-old son Wesley is currently undergoing treatment for cancer for the second time. Because Boyd doesn’t have access to paid family leave, she is unable to accompany him to his chemotherapy treatments, which take place 3 1/2 hours away. 

“If something happens, I won’t be able to get there quickly,” said Boyd. “I’m scared.”

Aimee Boyd, 42, is pictured with her 14-year-old son Wesley Johnson, who was diagnosed with non-germinomatous germinoma in the pineal region of his brain. He is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatment. | Aimee Boyd

According to Rachel Greszler, research fellow in economics at The Heritage Foundation, there is less bipartisan support for leave that covers caring for sick parents, kids or spouses because these situations are unpredictable and needs vary wildly depending on the person and the illness. On the other hand, the process of welcoming a new baby is relatively similar for all new parents and employers can plan ahead for absences.

Studies show maternity leave leads to better health outcomes for babies, higher rates of breastfeeding and greater maternal physical and mental health. And the benefits aren’t just for women. Paternity leave helps fathers become more engaged parents and improves their relationships with mothers, says a new study from Ball State University. 

Currently, the Family Medical Leave Act is the only federal policy in the U.S. that guarantees time off for reasons including childbirth and illness. It lets workers take up to 12 weeks off from work without fear of losing their job. But the law does not guarantee payment and roughly 40% of workers don’t even qualify. 

After Jennifer Akerman Sall, 44, gave birth to her daughter via emergency c-section in 2010, she said she had no choice but to return to work after 15 days, or else she would be fired. The ticket resale company she worked for in Omaha, Nebraska, had fewer than 50 employees, and so she did not qualify for family medical leave. The recommended recovery time for a c-section is six weeks at minimum, and Sall’s husband had to drop her off at work because she was not yet cleared to drive. 

“It was extremely painful,” said Sall. 

Advocates like Jessica Mason, senior policy analyst at the National Partnership for Women & Families, say that despite the costs of getting a paid family leave program going, such would ultimately enhance the economy by keeping more people connected to the workforce. The American Family Survey showed low-income people are more likely to leave the workforce entirely or switch jobs following a leave.

Critics like de Rugy, on the other hand, say a paid family leave would ultimately hurt the economy because people would take more time off and end up working less overall. 

“Economic projections tend to calculate costs in a way that supports the argument they are trying to make,” said Thomas Oppel, executive vice president of the American Sustainable Business Council. “But how do you calculate the psychological benefit of being able to bond with a new child, or the economic benefit of the peace of mind that comes when an employee can take time off to care for a sick parent without having to worry about being able to pay the bills or mortgage for that month? These things are not so easy to measure.”  

The costs 

Experts agree the main roadblock to any paid family leave proposal is determining how it will be funded. The American Family Survey asked respondents to consider four different proposals currently being discussed by politicians.

The most popular approach was the the FAMILY Act sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., which would provide two-thirds of worker salary for up to three months for a variety of different family medical issues. It would be funded by a tax that is estimated to be two cents per $10 of wages. This plan was favored by a majority of Democrats but just 35% of Republicans. 

Support for family leave proposals | Joseph Tolman

Eight states, including California and New York, have passed their own family leave policies, all of which are funded in a similar way. 

The advantages are that the costs are spread out among a large number of workers and the benefits would be available to nearly everyone who works, even as they move from job to job or state to state, said Oppel. 

But Greszler said there are real downsides to a proposal that mandates everyone pay in. She says a one-size-fits-all approach is an inefficient way to meet the needs of a diverse workforce. Pointing to Europe as an example, she says she worries a tax that starts out at two cents per $10 will expand quickly over time and that more people will take more time off simply because it’s available and not because they truly need it. 

These are among the reasons why Republican senators have introduced bills based on a different funding model. The CRADLE Act, proposed by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and the New Parents Act, supported by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen Mitt Romney, R-Utah, both offer up to three months of leave to new parents. Willing participants can withdraw Social Security funds after the birth of a child, in exchange for delayed retirement benefits. The main difference between the two proposals is the New Parents Act provides slightly more flexibility and doesn’t require people to stop working to receive the funds.

Family leave policy proposals | American Family Survey

The reason Lee supports the CRADLE Act is because it doesn’t force anyone to participate, his office said. Only the people who really need the benefit will choose to access it, and they will be responsible for paying it back.

“Paid leave costs money. Anything that costs money has to be paid for and it is always tough finding agreement on how to pay for things,” said staff from Lee’s office. 

Mason dislikes Lee’s and Romney’s proposals because she thinks they will contribute to the depletion of the Social Security fund, which is already predicted to be insolvent by 2034. Republican sponsors, however, say fixing Social Security is a separate issue and their plans won’t affect the fund because the money will be paid back.

The American Family Survey showed the social security model was unpopular among Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike. Among all three groups, less than 30% of respondents expressed support, and less than 8% expressed strong support.

“The concern is, if you let people use Social Security for one thing, why not let them use it for other socially acceptable purposes? College tuition? Paying for a car? It’s not supposed to be a social piggy bank,” said Greszler.  

Cassidy and Sinema’s idea to draw on the child tax credit could potentially get around these criticisms and generate more support. The American Family Survey did not collect data on this more recent proposal.

Alexis Steck rinses out a bottle at home in Midvale, Utah, on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. Steck is on unpaid maternity leave. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Others believe it’s not the government’s job to intervene at all. In addition to government assistance, Steck, the new mom in Midvale, is receiving financial help from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

“This is the role of civil society,” said de Rugy. De Rugy says the United States needs more deregulation and lower taxes to raise wages so employers can make their own policies. Churches and charities can fill in whatever gaps remain, she said.

Another bill sponsored Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y. that would allow for tax-exempt parental leave savings accounts for individuals who make less than $250,000 a year. This bill was the most popular among Republicans, and overall 35% percent of Americans favored this bill, according to the survey. 

Although the costs and complexities of legislation have made it difficult for politicians to agree on a policy, now is the time for compromise, said Mathur. 

“I do think that getting started is the biggest step. It’s easier to build off an existing program than not have anything and wait another 10 years,” said Mathur. “I don’t think we can wait for the perfect policy to come along hope both sides will vote for it.”