When Donald Trump pitched his plan to extend paid leave to all new mothers in September, his campaign insisted the benefit would cover only women.
Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar in economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning research group, said she spoke in December to a “lower-level” member of Trump’s transition team about the president’s idea. Staffers were considering one key revision, she said: turning maternity leave into parental leave — a benefit that fathers, too, could access.
“They didn’t want to just focus on mothers,” she said. “They were thinking about making it gender-neutral.”
A White House spokesperson would not confirm whether the president’s policy had changed but said, “It’s a top priority of his. The president has expressed a need for a comprehensive maternity plan.”
The United States does not guarantee any paid time off for new parents. During his campaign, Trump proposed offering six weeks of paid time off to biological mothers through the country’s unemployment insurance, which currently floats cash to workers who are laid off. The proposal received backlash from both Republicans and Democrats: Those on the right said the measure would bloat public assistance, creating a larger bill for taxpayers, while those on the left said it discriminated against fathers and adoptive mothers.
Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have said the government should find a way to better support families. In 2015, for example, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida became the first GOP presidential contender to release a paid family leave plan, proposing a new tax break for companies that cover at least a four-week break for new parents. Democrats, meanwhile, have long advocated a national program, similar to the safety nets in European countries.
Mathur, who wrote a 2015 report suggesting parental leave should be funded through a tax credit, said including fathers in Trump’s plan probably wouldn’t make it significantly more costly, considering American men rarely take paternity leave, even when it’s fully funded through an employer.
Fewer than a third of new dads who work use more than 10 days of leave after the birth of a child, according to Labor Department data. Fewer than 1 in 7, meanwhile, receive pay for those days.
Mathur said it was unclear whether Trump was considering offering the aid to adoptive parents.
The Trump administration, she said, did not want to stray far from the original blueprint, though. The average weekly benefit, according to a campaign document, would be $300. Trump said he would pay for it by eliminating fraud in the unemployment insurance system. (Economists have said fraud payments constitute a tiny fraction of the overall program.)
“Providing the benefit through UI — paid for through program savings — will not be financially onerous to small businesses when compared with mandating paid leave,” the Trump team noted in a report. “The Trump plan for paid maternity leave will advance the interests of disadvantaged mothers without raising taxes.”
Carrie Lukas, director of policy for the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative nonprofit group, said she heard from a Trump aide a few weeks after the election. They chatted about the maternity leave proposal — specifically, the logistics of rolling it out on the state level. Lukas said gender didn’t come up in their conversation.
“They’re doing their homework,” she said. “They’re trying to talk to people and not just rush out with something.”
Hillary Clinton, for comparison, had proposed providing new parents — mothers and fathers, biological and adoptive — 12 weeks of parental leave at two-thirds of their wages, funded through a tax increase on the wealthy. Trump said his plan was influenced by his older daughter, Ivanka, who encouraged her father to become the first Republican presidential nominee to unveil a maternity leave proposal.
Back in November, Ellen Bravo, executive director of the national advocacy group Family Values at Work, said barring men from a paid leave program would be a blow to gender equality.
“This looks like a policy from someone who sees child-rearing as solely the responsibility of women and doesn’t understand American families,” Bravo said. “It assumes only women take care of kids.”
In a September interview with Cosmopolitan, Ivanka Trump defended the plan’s mothers-only focus.
“This is a giant leap from where we are today, which is sadly, nothing,” she said. “Both sides of the aisle have been unable to agree on this issue, so I think this takes huge advancement and obviously, for same-sex couples as well, there’s tremendous benefit here to enabling the mother to recover after childbirth. It’s critical for the health of the mother. It’s critical for bonding with the child, and that was a top focus of this plan.”
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