Monday is the 25th anniversary of the Then-President Bill Clinton signing the Family and Medical Leave Act, which mandated that employers with 50 or more employees grant full-time workers who need it up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to take care of a newborn or an ill family member, or if they are sick themselves.
But guess what. The United States is still the only First World nation that doesn’t require that new mothers receive paid leave.
President Trump says he would like to do something about that. He campaigned on a similar promise. He included a proposal for six weeks of paid parental leave in his budget for last year. As for this year, he’s so committed to the cause (can you hear the sarcasm as I type?) that he included exactly one line saying so in last week’s State of the Union address: “Let us support working families by supporting paid family leave.”
Yet there is a plan circulating in Republican circles, one that would tie family leave to Social Security. It shows both promise and peril. Social Security can be part of giving us the elusive prize of paid family leave — but it needs to be done the right way.
Politico reported that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is working with Ivanka Trump to promote an idea that would allow people needing family leave to tap into Social Security for income when they take family leave. In return, recipients would agree to push back when they can take a retirement stipend from the program.
The idea originates in an op-ed published this year in the Wall Street Journal by two conservative wonks. It has since been championed by conservatives senators such as Utah’s Mike Lee, and now, apparently, by Rubio and Ivanka Trump.
There is an argument to be made that Social Security is exactly the way to allow people to receive an income when they take family leave. It is, after all, not just a retirement stipend, though that’s how most of us think of it, but also a disability plan, one that offers benefits to children who suffer the death of a parent.
But funding family leave at the cost of delaying retirement benefits, even by a few weeks, could pose a serious risk to women’s finances in the future. While we like to believe we are in control of the decision about when to retire, it just ain’t so. Those who study the issue say many of us will permanently exit the workforce before we plan to. As a result, some Social Security advocates express strong reservations about the idea.
Women are almost twice as likely as men to live in poverty or near poverty in retirement, a risk that grows as they age. At the same time, 3 out of 10 women rely on Social Security for 90 percent of their income in retirement, according to the National Women’s Law Center, while only 23 percent of men find themselves in the same position. Yet despite women’s greater reliance on the program in old age, they receive lower Social Security payments than men, thanks to a combination of lower salaries and more peripatetic careers, since they are significantly more likely than men to take time out of the workplace for everything from child-care to elder-care responsibilities. This plan, without meaning to, could make women’s already difficult finances in retirement even worse.
The mere fact that this is the only plan that appears to have support among any Republicans right now suggests that, no matter what Trump says, paid family leave will remain an elusive goal for most Americans.
After all, many Republicans just aren’t going to support paid leave. Following Trump’s declaration of support for it in his State of the Union, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s (R-Wis.) office told the Daily Beast that he continues to champion a plan that would permit workers to use saved overtime for when they want to take time off with a newborn. That’s not paid leave.
To be clear, it’s possible to envision a workable solution emerging that’s worth supporting. The issue of Social Security itself is bound to come up, if not this year, then at some other point in the relatively near future. The most recent report by the program trustees estimated that if fixes aren’t undertaken, Social Security will be able to pay beneficiaries only a little more than three-fourths of their promised benefits beginning in 2034. There is no question that at some point, some action will be needed to buttress the finances of the program.
So maybe we can get a win-win here if Trump and Republicans get serious about taking action on Social Security’s finances and paid family leave in a way that does not ask Americans to trade future retirement money and security for the promise of a few weeks of paid family leave benefits. But that doesn’t look likely anytime soon.