The Washington Post

Family leave: not a benefit, a protection

A radical, if little noticed, idea came out of the Center for American Progress last week.

(Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

Paid family leave is one of those issues that at the moment has plenty of supporters but no political weight. There is yet to be a leader who has proposed a palatable financing structure that would overcome the idea’s main opponents.

Those would be a business community that fears business owners would bear the brunt of what could be a crippling cost, deficit hawks who view it as a money pit and too many politicians of independent means don’t understand why most Americans are crawling to work some days exhausted and overwhelmed.

Now, here comes CAP economist Heather Boushey and analyst Sarah Jane Glynn with an idea: Consider paid family leave not a “benefit” but a protection.

Their heavily annotated report released last week suggests expanding Social Security to cover family caregiving leave. They offer a detailed sketch of how this would work, including how it would greatly improve upon the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

Only about half of U.S. workers, Boushey and Glynn estimate, can take advantage of that unpaid family leave as eligibility requirements have shut out much of the workforce.

That’s still better than access to either paid family leave and sick days through employers — about 11 percent of workers, according to the report — or to short-term disability, about 37 percent.

But it’s not nearly good enough for a population that is increasingly pulled between work and children and elderly parents who need care.

Instead, Boushey and Glynn suggest, extend Social Security disability coverage to include partially paid leave of up to 12 weeks to care for family members. They’ve modeled their proposal on current programs in California, New Jersey and Washington State.

More broadly, what their proposal seeks to do is tap into the firmly held U.S. commitment to basic worker protections. Many of these protections are so ingrained in our public policy that we forget they exist only because of passionate advocacy.

Now, they argue, it’s time for those policies to catch up to cultural changes. Though they don’t say it explicitly, it’s also about time the passionate advocacy caught up to.

“In the 1930s, it might have been reasonable to assume that workers were not also their family’s caregivers, although many workers — especially women, women of color and immigrants — often played both roles. In 2012 this is no longer a reasonable assumption ... ” the authors note.

“Today we are once again experiencing the types of socioeconomic changes that led to the development and subsequent amendment of the Social Security Act. As a result, it is once again time for Social Security to adapt to changing conditions and to address these new realities.”

What do you think of the idea?

What are your thoughts on paid family leave and how or if it should be codified?

Related Content:

A rallying cry for parents’ rights

Where is the best place to be a mother? Not the U.S.

Unaffordable child care and why that should matter to everyone


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