This is a tale of two policies promoted by President Obama: one to make community college free, the other to provide for paid sick leave and parental leave. Both are well-intentioned efforts to address fundamental, economic-based inequities. Only one — the leave policy — should be adopted.
It’s worth examining the two proposals, not just because they are important on their own but also because they reflect a continuing tension between the allure of programs that provide a universal benefit and those that are more targeted toward a specific population in need.
The president’s community college proposal sounds great. A high school diploma alone no longer suffices; the income gap between those with a college degree and those without is staggering. So why not expand the K-12 entitlement through community colleges, “essential pathways to the middle class,” as Obama describes them?
Well, because need-based Pell Grants already make community college basically free for poor and working-class students. This year, the grants cover up to $5,730 in college costs, while the average community college tuition runs about $3,800.
This is not to say that Obama’s plan would provide no additional benefit to Pell Grant recipients: Community college tuition would be free, and students could use their Pell Grants to cover additional expenses, such as textbooks and room and board.
Still, much of the daunting cost — in total, $60 billion over 10 years — would go to subsidize community college for those who can already afford it. This makes little sense in a time of limited federal and state resources. (The Obama plan would require participating states to pick up a quarter of the tab.) Instead, policymakers should concentrate on ensuring that students don’t just make it to community college but end up graduating.
The community college discussion parallels the even more impassioned debate over universal pre-kindergarten, something Obama has previously proposed. Early childhood education is essential; it should be guaranteed. But, again, does it make sense for the government to pay for preschool for the children of those who can afford it and are already footing the bill?
In the case of early childhood education, the equities, and political reality, may nonetheless tilt in favor of universality. Attracting political support for publicly funded pre-K, and avoiding having the programs become ghettoized services solely for lower-income children, may require the trade-off of subsidized preschool for families that would otherwise pay for it on their own.
Community colleges, by comparison, already exist to serve a general population; so does the mechanism (Pell Grants) for ensuring access. In this context, creating a universal entitlement seems less essential.
By contrast with his community college plan, Obama’s push for paid sick days and family leave makes sense, however dim its actual prospects. They are the converse of the community college proposal — taking what is now effectively an upper-middle-class entitlement and making it universal.
Currently, 43 million American workers — nearly 4 in 10 — have no paid sick days. You can guess who: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 84 percent of private-sector employees with pay in the top quarter are entitled to paid sick leave, compared with 30 percent of those with pay in the bottom quarter. In other words, those who can least afford taking time off for illness are least entitled to it.
The situation is similar in terms of paid leave to care for a new child or sick family member. The United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee maternity leave. According to a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, “college-educated workers are twice as likely to have access to paid leave as workers without a high school degree (72 percent versus 35 percent).”
This situation is not just unfair — it’s counterproductive. Workers with access to paid leave are healthier and more productive. Mothers with paid maternity leave are more likely to return to the workforce.
Obama urged Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which would guarantee seven days of sick leave annually; he proposed $2 billion to encourage states to develop paid family and medical leave programs.
Businesses argue that paid leave would force them to cut jobs or reduce wages. Yet evidence from states and cities that have adopted paid sick leave and family leave policies does not support such claims.
Government’s job isn’t to distribute ever-increasing benefits to all. Rather, it’s to ensure that the distribution of benefits and opportunities — whether a college education or time off to care for a sick parent — is as equal as reasonably possible.
Great news: Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has granted a conditional pardon to Reginald “Neli” Latson, a 23-year-old man with autism and an IQ of 69. McAuliffe’s action will allow Latson to get the treatment he needs at a facility in Florida.