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Guest opinion: What we can learn from the way Republicans and Democrats view paid family leave

Aparna Mathur, Resident Scholar, Economic Policy, American Enterprise Institute responds to questions during the “Fifth Annual American Family Survey: Myths about families, plus what Americans really think about paid family leave” panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, Thursday, September 12, 2019.
Aparna Mathur, Resident Scholar of Economic Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, responds to questions during the “Fifth Annual American Family Survey: Myths about families, plus what Americans really think about paid family leave” panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., Thursday, September 12, 2019.
Rod Lamkey Jr., For the Deseret News

The Fifth Annual American Family Survey, conducted by Deseret News and Brigham Young University, offers some revealing insights into the politically charged issue of paid family leave. While a few findings are common to other surveys, the questions reveal some surprising findings, particularly in terms of the types of federal proposals that the average Republican and Democratic voter would support. Understanding voter preference is invaluable to policymakers when debating this issue and designing proposal ideas.

First, the survey highlights some well-known findings. Namely, that access to paid leave is worse for low-wage workers. While the survey finds that about 37% of those earning less than $40,000 receive some pay while on leave, the percentage is nearly double for those earning over $80,000. Disparities do not stop there. High-income workers reported receiving an average of 77% of wages while away from work, but low-wage workers reported receiving only 62% .

But there are differences here too. Whereas high-income households are able to rely on their employers for pay, low-income households are forced to rely on debt and their own savings to fund their period of leave.

In addition, nearly one-third of respondents reported having to rely on some type of government support during the period of leave. Food stamps are the most commonly used government support program. This significant reliance on food stamps signals that government transfer programs are often necessary to cover the most basic of needs during periods of leave. Clearly, the most vulnerable workers are left to fend for themselves. And these low-wage workers are also more likely to drop out of the workforce altogether after taking leave.

These findings mirror those from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports that a majority of Americans have some access to unpaid family leave, but only 16% of workers have access to paid family leave. Again, this data confirms that the prospect is even bleaker for the most vulnerable workers. Only 7% of workers in the bottom quintile have paid family leave. Part-time workers, minority individuals and workers at small businesses are all less likely to have access to paid leave.

Although access differs based on income level, does this mean low-wage workers take less leave? According to this survey, the answer is no. Approximately one-fifth of workers responded that they took leave (longer than a week) within the past year, and that is constant across income groups. The universal need for leave makes this disparity in access and wage replacement even more concerning.

Beyond current worker experiences, the survey highlights interesting differences between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to policy design. While the conversation in Congress has traditionally bundled together all the three types of leave — parental, medical and family care — the survey shows that people view each of these leaves differently.

Support is strongest for maternity leave among both Republicans and Democrats, followed by paternity leave. When it comes to caregiving leave, support among Democrats is still high, while it drops less than 40% among Republicans. This can help explain the difference in Congress between Republican and Democratic proposals. While the Democratic-supported FAMILY Act bundles all three types of leave, Republican proposals have focused only on parental leave.

Aparna Mathur, Resident Scholar, Economic Policy, American Enterprise Institute (left) responds to questions during the “Fifth Annual American Family Survey at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, Thursday, September 12, 2019.
Aparna Mathur, Resident Scholar of Economic Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, left, responds to questions during the “Fifth Annual American Family Survey at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, Thursday, September 12, 2019.
Rod Lamkey Jr., For the Deseret News

Interestingly, the survey shows that even among Republicans, the average preferred length of parental and caregiving leave is about two months. Democrats favor leave durations nearly double that level. The bipartisan AEI-Brookings Working Group also put forth a recommendation of eight weeks for parental leave. This is worth keeping in mind when designing paid leave policies at the federal level.

Yet, despite the support for paid leave documented above, support for federal proposals on paid leave is underwhelming. Only 57% of Democrats support the FAMILY Act, (compared to the nearly three-quarters who support all types of leave the proposal covers) and there exists a similar phenomenon among Republicans for Republican-led proposals. So what is the sticking point? Cost is a big factor. While the idea of pulling forward Social Security benefits was largely criticized in Congress, the survey shows that about a quarter of people, across all parties, support funding paid leave through delaying Social Security retirement benefits. In fact, more people prefer that “voluntary approach” than they do income taxes. Income tax increases are far less preferred, and payroll taxes even less so.

Support for family leave proposals
Support for family leave proposals
Joseph Tolman

This shows up in support for the CRADLE Act, funded by delaying the receipt of Social Security benefits at the time of retirement by two months for every month of leave taken earlier in life at the time of birth or adoption of a child. This received support from 40% of Democrats surveyed and 31% of Republicans. At the same time, Republicans showed strong support for the FAMILY Act — even stronger support than the CRADLE Act. Clearly, average Republican and Democratic voters do not mirror the divide among Congressional leaders regarding support for these proposals.

The Fifth Annual American Family Survey reinforces the finding that a majority of Americans support paid leave, yet there are inequities in access, differences in preferred sources of funding, coverage and duration. Policymakers would be wise to use information about the needs and preferences of American workers when designing a federal paid leave solution.

Aparna Mathur co-directs the AEI-Brookings Working Group on Paid Leave, and Erin Melly is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.