It’s not easy raising a family in the United States. America has some of the worst family welfare policies in the world. Child and healthcare costs are off the charts. A staggering 15 million children live below the poverty line. And the U.S. is the only industrialized nation on earth in which parents aren’t guaranteed paid parental leave when their children are born.
This week, Republicans floated a own version of paid leave called the Cradle Act. It sounds great until you realize the leave it provides isn’t not exactly paid. The bill would let parents fund the time they spend caring for their new babies by dipping into Social Security savings, so it’s less of a boon to parents than a sneaky way to erode Social Security that takes advantage of widespread confusion over how family leave works in America.
“Younger people and white collar workers are especially oblivious to that fact that paid leave isn’t federally guaranteed,” says Megan Sholar, professor and author of Getting Paid While Taking Time: The Women’s Movement and the Development of Paid Leave Policies in the United States. Sholar says that since younger people have likely never used paid leave, and many white collar employees receive paid leave through their company. “So if you have a lot of young people and those kinds of workers, it’s hard to raise awareness around the issue.”
Nonetheless, paid leave has become slightly more visible in recent years. In 2013, now-Democratic presidential hopeful Kirsten Gillibrand and Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro proposed the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would guarantee American workers 12 weeks of paid leave. It’s a vast improvement over current federal legislation, passed in 1993, which also offers 12 weeks of leave but without pay. The FAMILY Act has never passed both houses of Congress, but Gillibrand has reintroduced it every two years since. Parental leave will likely be one of Gillibrand’s distinguishing issues in a crowded Democratic primary field.
Paid leave has long been a Democratic issue, according to Sholar. But it’s begun to cross political lines. The 2016 election marked the first ever presidential race in which both major party candidates openly supported paid family leave.
“More and more Republicans are jumping on board with [paid leave], especially after how poorly they fared with women voters during the 2018 midterms,” Sholar says. “It’s a potential pathway back to that demographic.”
States have also taken up the paid leave mantle recently. Certain policies could provide a potential roadmap to future federal legislation. While only six states and Washington, D.C. have paid family leave legislation on their books, several more states are moving toward it. And the proposals are becoming more progressive with time. Massachusetts, the most recent state to pass leave legislation, offers up to 26 weeks per year of combined family and medical leave. California was the first state to introduce paid leave in 2002, offering the now-typical 12 weeks to beneficiaries, but has recently proposed extending it to six months.
“I would certainly say this is pushing us in the direction of a national paid leave plan,” Sholar says. “As every new state gets it, it’s gaining in popularity and more people know about it.”
State policies and the FAMILY Act have essentially set 12 weeks paid leave as the floor for future legislation. But bipartisan approval and newfound popularity in paid family leave could open the door for even more progressive alternatives.
“There’s some discussion about family benefits in the United States, but they’re all hived off into different categories,” says economist Matt Bruenig, founder of People’s Policy Project. “Pulling them all under one heading will lead to better policy, better politics and make them easier to understand.”
People’s Policy Project recently released a comprehensive set of universal family welfare benefits designed to ease the financial burden of parenting called the Family Fun Pack. According to the paper (authored by Bruenig himself), “half of poor adults who live with children are only poor because of the expenses of raising children.” Over 28 million people in families with children lived below the poverty line in 2017. Through increased taxes, the Family Fun Pack consists of seven benefits including free child care, free pre-Kindergarten, free school lunch and free health care through age 26. And since most people have kids, the benefits are essentially universal for all Americans.
Bruenig also proposes 36 weeks of paid leave to be split between parents, as well as guaranteed income. Under the FAMILY Act, only people with earning records would qualify for its benefits. If you don’t have a job or didn’t hold one long enough, you don’t receive income. But the Family Fun Pack would guarantee parents receive an income equal to at least the minimum wage. Those working minimum wage jobs would also receive the entirety of their pay, rather than 66 percent as proposed in the FAMILY Act.
“It’s more generous in how much earnings it replaces, and it ensures nobody is left out of the benefit just because they haven’t been working recently or for some other reason,” Bruenig says.
The Family Fun Pack is a radical solution to an overlooked problem, and would need a progressive politician to champion it. Bruenig based the Family Fun Pack on policies of Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark. For paid parental leave, he directly mirrored the Swedish model, using a shared amount of leave between parents. So although it might seem extreme in America, the progressive policies would fit right in across the Atlantic.
“The FAMILY Act would be so much more than we currently have, but it’s hard to tell if those 12 weeks would be enough,” Sholar says. “It feels like the minimum when it comes to caring for new children, but it’s still quite paltry compared to some European countries.”
Sholar also believes that if more Americans knew how comprehensive parental leave policies are around the world, they might demand more immediate action from lawmakers. In theory, that makes progressive family benefits policies far more realistic.
“[Americans] don’t know that we’re the outsider when it comes to these benefits,” Sholar says. “We are the only industrialized nation without paid family and medical leave. And we’re one of only about eight countries that don’t have even paid maternity leave.”
A proposal like Family Fun Pack isn’t just about making parenting more affordable. It forces Americans to fundamentally reconsider how it views some of its most vulnerable members.
“You have to make a sort of value judgement on how you want to understand children,” Bruenig says. “In most welfare states, including our own, if you’re not working for some reason you should get some kind of benefit. We give money to elderly and disabled people because they don’t work. We give money to unemployed people because they don’t work. Children also need to be included in that group, because we should understand them as having a rightful claim over what our economy produces.”
Completely re-valuing children might be a lot to ask in a society that prioritizes short term profit over long term health and sustainability. But there’s nowhere to go but up for a country with the shoddiest family benefits in the industrialized world. Since America offers so little in the way of family benefits, we’re looking a more progressive future by default. Just how progressive remains to be seen.