Problematic Women: Why Government-Funded Maternity Leave Is Not the Answer
Lauren Evans / Kelsey Bolar /
Rachel Greszler has six kids–and works as a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. But she’s no proponent of government-funded maternity leave. On today’s show, Greszler breaks down why a top-down, big government paid family leave program would actually hurt women, and why the private sector is better equipped to provide solutions. Read the interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:
We also discuss these topics:
—Fat-shaming plates? Macy’s is facing backlash for selling dinner plates that encourage portion control by labeling different portion sizes “mom jeans,” “favorite jeans,” and “skinny jeans.”
—Should women be forced to wax the genitals of a biological man? A Canadian transgender woman has filed 16 complains against beauticians who have refused to perform the service.
—Will Ivanka Trump ever catch a break? Social justice warriors take to the Internet, calling her racist because she bought her 8-year-old daughter a white dog.
—Finally, we crown Samantha Renck, conservative college student, Heritage Foundation summer intern, and creator of the new “Millennial Myths” podcast, as our Problematic Woman of the Week.
Kelsey Bolar: Earlier this week, Rachel Greszler, who is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation specializing in economics, budget and entitlements, participated in a debate over the question of whether there’s a conservative case for paid family leave.
This question has divided the conservative movement with some, including Sen, Mike Lee, arguing yes—and proposing the plan to do just that. Others such as Rachel have argued, no, the federal government has no role in providing new parents with this benefit.
I attended this debate hosted by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where the opportunity to hear both sides make their case. For this interview I decided the best way to format it is for me to lay out the best pro- family leave arguments and give Rachel the opportunity to respond. And trust me, as someone who is now more than six months pregnant and thinking through my own options for maternity leave, I am not going easy on her!
That said, fun fact about Rachel, she is a working mom with six children under the age of 10 of her own. So while she is one of the leading policy experts in this space, she can also speak about this issue from lots of experience.
Rachel, welcome to the show.
Rachel Greszler: Thank you Kelsey.
Bolar: Starting broad, conservatives are pro-life and pro-family. Studies have found that some 20% of women drop out of the workforce after having their first child and that many women actually choose abortion because they feel they would have no option but to return to work right after having a child.
Studies have also found that putting infants into daycare is not good for their early development because children physically need their mothers at these young ages.
So as conservatives, why wouldn’t we want government policies that could reduce abortions and enable working mothers to thrive in the economy?
Greszler: Well, I want to start out by first saying as conservatives, we absolutely do support paid family leave. We want mothers to be able to stay home with their children. We want workers to be able to take leave for their own medical reasons or to care for a family member.
What we don’t support is a one-size-fits-all government program that tells workers the type of leave they can take and when they can take it. We want to be about choices and opportunities and I think that all conservatives agree on that.
But when you talk about the type of federal program that’s being proposed both by conservatives and by liberals, what we’re looking at is a federal intervention that actually gives people fewer choices and we’re talking about subsidizing one choice that a woman makes versus another. One woman who decides to stay home with her children versus one woman who decides to work.
Both of these can be the right choice for that individual, but a one size fits all government program can’t meet those unique choices that we want people to be able to make.
And when it gets to the issue of abortion, I haven’t seen any statistics that linked this. I kind of see the people that argue for that clamoring to results that they’re trying to find. A link could be there, but it’s really not. When you look at abortion, that’s a life-altering decision. That’s a really significant choice. Many women will tell you one of the biggest ones that they made and maybe the most regrettable one that they’ve made in their life.
I don’t see how having a six or 12 week benefit from the government available to those women would make a difference in them saying, “I’m going to have this child and raise them for 18 years versus not have them.” I think we need to talk more comprehensively about ways that we can support women who are facing that choice, such as, what is the cost of childcare? What are the job opportunities that will make that woman feel like she can support a child instead?
Bolar: Yeah. I think that’s a really important way to open this conversation because since you are one of the leading voices advocating against a government mandated paid paternity or maternity leave policy, a lot of people conclude that you’re against paid paternity leave. But that’s not the case?
Greszler: No, I’m absolutely not against paid family leave and I’ve taken plenty of paid family [leave] myself and I think that is something that should be available. And I celebrate the fact that we’ve seen a huge increase in private employers that are giving their employees this option and providing it as a benefit.
And we’ve seen that happen because workers want it and employers want to be able to attract good workers and in a thriving economy like we have now—they have to be competitive and they have to offer policies like that in providing paid family leave as a way to get a good worker on-board and as a way to keep them there. If you don’t provide a policy, you’re more likely to have a worker not come back after having a child or after having some medical leave and their significant costs to that.
So there’s already the free market that’s working in favor of workers here for employers to provide those policies. It’s now the case that the top 20 employers in the U.S. now have paid family leave policies. That wasn’t always the case.
And we’re talking about lower income jobs. Companies like Walmart, Target, Chipotle, Lowe’s, Starbucks, all these companies are coming out and announcing new policies because it’s what workers want. And so, instead of stepping in now when we’ve seen this tremendous growth—this is the ideal time to wait and see how many more private employers we can get to offer these policies instead of pulling them out from under worker’s feet.
Bolar: A lack of paid family leave is hurting the most vulnerable among us, say the proponents of government mandated paid family leave. These are single and low-income mothers. And while as conservatives, we are pro- family, we are also pro- small and medium businesses, which are typically the ones who can’t afford to provide employee sponsored paid family leave policies.
So as conservatives, wouldn’t we want to support some sort of social safety net for these workers who are falling through the cracks, without punishing small and medium businesses by forcing them to pay for something that they can’t afford?
Greszler: Exactly, and I’m glad you brought that point up because we are trying to target a smaller group of people who don’t have access to leave now. It’s lower income workers and it’s those who work for the small and medium sized businesses.
So let’s consider what would happen if we implemented a national paid family leave policy today. The larger employers already pay for these policies so they actually would not be impacted. Even if we tax them directly, they’re going to pay those taxes and they’re going to revoke their policies that they’re already providing so it’s cost neutral for them. Maybe it would even save some some money because the federal policy might be less generous than what they’re already providing to their workers.
And we’ve seen companies like Deloitte testify that if they’re in a state that has a state-based program, they make their workers first use that state program and then they might top them off with benefits, but they’re taking the entirety of what can be provided to them by federal taxpayers first. The people that really costs are those small or medium businesses that don’t currently have a plan because they pay for that whole tax.
And what we seen in European countries that have big programs, they say that they are actually regressive. They ended up taxing smaller and medium income earners more so than higher income earners who are more likely to use the program.
So you end up hurting the people that you’re trying to help lower income earners and small and medium businesses who just haven’t had enough time yet to develop the resources to establish a paid family leave policy.
Bolar: So what is your solution for a new mom working minimum wage, who’s employed at a small or medium sized business that doesn’t offer any sort of paid family leave? We know that some low-income women actually return to work as early as two weeks after giving birth.
Greszler: Yeah, so there actually is a proposal out there already. Sen. Lee has proposed the Working Families Flexibility Act and this is particularly beneficial to lower income workers.
What it does is it says if you’re an hourly worker and you qualify for overtime, then you can choose whether you would like to work those overtime hours and receive pay or whether you’d rather receive paid time off. And so somebody who works even just two hours extra per week per year and receives overtime, they could accumulate four weeks of paid leave every year.
Ironically, this is something that’s prohibited right now in the private sector. Public sector workers have that choice. They can do as comp time or they can choose overtime pay, but for some reason the government doesn’t allow private sector workers to make that choice even if their wants to offer it.
Bolar: Proponents of federally-funded paid family leave also will argue that Americans are already paying for paid leave via public assistance. And that some studies have actually found that women use less public assistance when they have access to a paid family leave plan.
So as conservatives, wouldn’t we want to support a plan that encourages women to rely less on government money?
Greszler: Yes, we want people to be self-sufficient and independent, and be able to provide for themselves, of course. But what we’re talking about here is a tiny reduction in the amount of welfare assistance that one person might make in exchange for a massive new federal entitlement.
So maybe we reduce welfare spending by a million dollars, but then we implement a new public program that costs tens of billions of dollars per year. I mean, when we walk down the road of what a federal policy starts out as and what it eventually ends as, you end up with a program that’s going to cost workers hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars per year. And so is it worth it if we can get a few women taking less than welfare and yet every single worker on the economy is paying hundreds or thousands of dollars more per year? That’s a lot more government spending.
Bolar: Let’s break down one of these proposals by Republican Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah have already introduced. It’s called the Child Rearing and Development Leave Empowerment Act, or CRADLE, and it’s a plan that would let parents take one to three months off from work to care for a newborn or adoptive child by tapping into their Social Security benefits early. In exchange, people could delay retirement benefits and those benefit levels would be determined by using the same formula that they use to determine social security disability benefits.
For example, someone making around $50,000 a year would get at least $1,800 a month. Someone making the poverty level of $16,910 would get $960 a month.
The argument in favor of this plan is that it doesn’t penalize stay-at-home mothers. It provides women working or non-working with more choice. There’s also the argument that, “Hey, I’m paying into social security right now. That’s my money. Why shouldn’t I have the right to take it out early to fund my own paid family leave if that is something that I value?”
So why wouldn’t conservatives support giving women more choice?
Greszler: There are two fundamental flaws with this proposal to use Social Security. The first is that it violates the purpose of Social Security and why we established it. And the second is that we’ve only seen Social Security to be an ever expanding federal program and I have zero confidence that Congress would ever keep this a truly cost-neutral program and instead I think we would see it evolve over time.
We have paid into Social Security and we are told that there will be something there for us when we retire. But the reality is, every dollar you and I pay and today is going immediately out the door to pay current retirees benefits. We don’t own that money. It’s not in a lockbox and Congress actually has the ability to take it away entirely tomorrow if they wanted.
The Supreme Court has ruled we have no claim to our Social Security benefits, so it’s not our money. And by telling people that it is their money, it only makes them more enamored with this big federal entitlement program. It makes it all the more difficult to reform it going forward in a way that would make it so that the benefits are actually there. The retirement benefits are there for the people that we’ve told them they would be there for.
I think that we need to look at this proposal in terms of what Social Security is. It’s not a social piggy bank and you can just see how it would expand over time. If we can use it for paid family leave, why not also allow people to take a loan to purchase a car, to pay off their mortgage, their student loans, and why would we want to make people have to delay their retirement? We could waive that requirement later and it would end up actually end up costing a lot of money.
The benefit level might not be high enough. So Congress would say, well, we need a higher benefit level. We need it to cover not just paid maternity leave, because that’s actually only about one of every five leaves that’s taken in the U.S., but we want it to cover all paid family leave.
And then you can just see how this program expands over time and what started out as something that was small and costs nothing ends up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for every worker per year.
Bolar: But there is that argument that if we don’t go with this proposal to use Social Security benefits, we will get something far more massive that would be far more damaging to the economy. And those same people will also argue that if the Europeans can provide these types of benefits, why can’t we here in the most prosperous country in the world?
Greszler: So what happens if we don’t go with the Social Security proposal? I think what happens is we continue to see more and more employers offer their own plans and you see workers who are benefiting from those and it’s the best way to get your own policy is through the employer directly. And so we see more growth in that, and then there’s less need to have a federal program going forward.
Also, if we do go with Social Security because we’re trying to avoid a massive new federal program, I actually think that should be the left’s game plan. What program would be better to see it expand over time than social security?
Social Security started out as a 2% payroll tax. It’s now 12.4% and Democrats have a bill that they’re debating this week, that would raise it to 15%. You can see how easily it would just continue to have that program grow and expand over time, providing higher benefits, higher taxes to finance it.
Also, I think the best path forward is to not take any of these proposals like Social Security, not the Democrats’ Family Act, but just wait until the private sector expands on their own and gives policies to people that are actually more beneficial than a one size fits all government program.
Bolar: What about the European countries? Why can they do it and we can’t?
Greszler: They can do it, but they’re taxed sufficiently for it. We’ve had a Heritage Foundation report out here recently that shows that taxes in Europe are extremely high. I mean the average person actually faces like a 50% marginal tax rate.
So if you want the government to be in control of more of your life decisions and you want to have to turn to them for all these choices you make, like staying at home after having a child, that’s fine. But you will pay for it and you’ll have fewer choices and lower incomes as a result.
Bolar: So Rachel, if you don’t support a government paid family leave plan, what do you support to help working women? Or are you just “anti women,” as a working mom of six?
Greszler: I support a whole number of policies. I’m going to mention the Working Families Flexibility Act. That’s something that specifically would help lower income women. I would love to see us have universal savings accounts that we could use for all types of decisions that we make. Whether it’s to stay home with a child, to save for college, to save for retirement.
And even without those, let’s let workers tap their 401k or their IRA early so that they can take that money to use it for paid family leave and let’s lower taxes. We saw what happened when the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was enacted and employers responded with new paid family leave policies.
When we’ve reduced regulations, that frees up resources so the employers can offer new plans. So I actually support the government getting out of the way and letting workers and employers be able to interact with one another and develop plans that work best for them, instead of having the government tell them what plans work.
Bolar: Well on this show, we love getting to know our guests a little better and I’m sure a lot of our listeners are wondering how you have balanced being a mom of six with your full-time job. Do you have any advice for other mothers out there or other moms-to-be like myself?
Greszler: I do, and my advice comes from my experience over, you know, having six children over the last 10 years and just seeing how valuable it’s been for me to be able work directly with my employer and talk about what works for me, what needs I have, how I can continue to grow in my career, but also be there for my children.
And that’s one of the reasons that I have been advocating so strongly against a federal program. I just don’t see how it would end up working for individuals and for employers. You’re taking away the ability of me to be able to talk to my boss and to say, “Here’s what works for me. I would like to be flexible. This maternity leave, I’d like to be gone for four months, but I’m going to work some while I’m gone.”
When the government’s in control, they are basically coming in and saying, “We determine whether or not this leave is a viable one. We determine how much you’re paid.” And your employer can’t ask you questions. They can’t ask you to keep doing things. And I think the most minimally costly policy for women is one that allows them to make the choices that work best for them. And you can only have that if they’re able to interact with their employers.
Bolar: And I imagine the type of birth you have could affect how much time you want or medically need off. And then I also wonder if it gets easier or more difficult with more children. On one hand, I think with my first, that’s when I’m really going to need to learn the ropes and I’m going to need a decent amount of time to figure out what I’m doing and how to balance this whole new life. Then I also think, how the heck do you do that with six?
Greszler: Yeah. And it’s, you know, you always are able to handle whatever you have at the time. And so now for me, having six doesn’t seem any harder than having one. But each of those leaves has been different. And as you said, of course the first time I felt like I needed that full … 12 weeks, absolutely. And I just wanted to be home and I didn’t have that much interaction with work.
But with subsequent children, you know, it made it easier. I would start having phone calls, emails, just doing things, being able to do it on my own time is I made those choices. And that’s what I’ve liked, is being able to stay connected in some capacity so that I don’t walk back in the door and not knowing what’s been going on over that time period.
But by being there for my employer and being willing to do some of these things, I have in turn benefited from them being flexible with me and not just during that 12 week period, but over the entirety of my work. Them allowing me, whether it’s to work at home or to take time off for a medical appointment, just trusting that I will get the work done. That’s been the best experience for me and something that I’ve seen that comes from individual interactions, as opposed to any intervention.
Bolar: Well, Rachel, thank you so much for your work on this issue and thank you for being willing to share some of your personal experience with this type of policy debate that we are having today.
Greszler: Thanks, Kelsey.