It is time for conservatives to back a sensible policy for America’s mothers.
The principles behind paid family leave are deeply consistent with conservatism, and our movement is already showing that we are best equipped to move passable legislation forward. Done right, there is something there for all of us to like.
For fiscal conservatives, for example, there is the Rutgers study that found that women who return to work after taking paid leave are 39 percent less likely to go on public assistance and 40 percent less likely to need food stamps the following year. Or the Paychex survey of small and midsize businesses that found nearly half support the notion of paid family leave. Or the endless studies that suggest a positive correlation between female participation in the labor force and overall national economic growth.
For social conservatives, paid family leave is deeply consistent with the pro-family, pro-life ethic we champion. At its core, supporting and celebrating the irreplaceable role of mothers and their crucial work in bringing up the next generation in an increasingly gender-neutral world is inherently conservative. Much of conservatism’s maternal reverence is informed by religion; perhaps no faith elevates motherhood more than Roman Catholicism with its exaltation of Mary, the mother of Christ.
Unsurprisingly, Pope Francis, who once said that Mary is more important than the Apostles, bishops, deacons and priests, has a thing or two to say about maternity leave for women. He told business executives in 2015 that women have both “the right to work and the right to motherhood.” “The challenge,” he said, “is to protect their right to a job that is given full recognition while at the same time safeguarding their vocation to motherhood and their presence in the family.”
Pope Francis builds on the thinking of Pope Saint John Paul II, who wrote in his 1981 encyclical “Laborem Exercens” that, “The true advancement of women requires that labor should be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their advancement by abandoning what is specific to them and at the expense of the family, in which women as mothers have an irreplaceable role.”
But conservatives also understand that the true advancement of women usually does not come in the form of top-down, budget-busting, government mandates. Numerous studies raise legitimate concerns about whether the European models of long, mandated paid leave lead to more discrimination against women, never mind whether they are sustainable in the long term.
Thankfully, a new generation of conservatives is putting forward sensible paid leave proposals that have the potential to help lower- and middle-class moms without punishing their employers. Few have talked about the two-year trial provision that Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) slipped into last year’s tax bill. Companies receive a tax credit if they offer workers some paid leave. It’s the first time any federal paid family leave policy has been voted into law, and Republicans got it done.
Ivanka Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are shopping around a proposal that would allow new mothers to draw early from their Social Security, delaying their ability to access the benefit upon retirement by a few weeks. A variation of the plan is championed by the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative group. It has its critics on the right, but the plan’s ethos is conservative in that it gives workers more control over what is rightly theirs to begin with.
And while the left will criticize any policy conservatives put forward as too little, the reality is that America has no appetite for a heavy-handed mandate. Government-mandated paid leave simply won’t pass. Or as Rubio tweeted, “My goal isn’t the ‘perfect’ plan, it’s 60 votes for law better than status quo.”
Can the party that gave women the right to vote change the status quo and lead the way forward on paid leave? Can the conservative movement show that it is possible to help women flourish both as mothers and as workers without upending the esprit de corps of American free-market economics?
Conservatives are already embracing the challenge.
Ashley E. McGuire is a senior fellow with the Catholic Association, the author of “Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female,” and a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center advisory council on paid family leave.