By Josiah Alexakos
Last year Yahoo! News told the story of Jasmine Dixon, a part-time hourly employee at Wal-mart who was forced to return to work only two weeks after a medically complex birth that ended with her son spending time in the NICU before being allowed to go home. Dixon’s story is hardly unusual. Countless American woman face similarly inhumane situations every year: They want to stay home with their newborn infant where they can enjoy the early days of that baby’s life and adjust to the change in routines that come with a newborn. But many, like Dixon, cannot afford to do so. And so they are forced back to work almost immediately after giving birth.
The current paid family leave proposal put forward by Sen. Marco Rubio is not a perfect solution to this problem, as critics like Elizabeth Bruenig have argued. But to dismiss the bill because it is imperfect is to reject a proposal that could truly help many American women. It is to make the perfect the enemy of the good. It’s worth responding to criticisms of it that ignore this important reality – and Bruenig’s may be the most prominent.
The first positive of the plan that Bruenig misses is possibly the strongest argument for it: this proposal is much better than our existing system of twelve weeks of unpaid family leave. If ever a system benefited the wealthy (which Bruenig rightly points out that this proposal also does), it is our current one. A family with a household income of $500,000 can take the hit of one parent taking twelve weeks off without pay much more easily than a family that has a household income of $50,000 a year. While having to delay retirement by the estimated six weeks per use is not ideal (and does indeed favors the wealthy), it does provide breathing room for lower earning families to take time off for parental leave, which ipso facto makes it at least possible for such a family to have children. If one of the many economic barriers to having a family are removed by a political proposal, I would think that demands at least some acknowledgment. Providing some kind of paid parental leave is manifestly superior to the current unpaid leave.
It is also not clear to me why a proposal should be discounted only because it benefits the wealthy more so than the poor. It appears to be a feature of our economic system that most proposals will benefit the wealthy by the simple fact that they are wealthy. It is a frustrating reality, and Bruenig and her husband have long argued that this system is immoral (and their arguments are quite right). But a provisional measure that improves the absolute circumstances of the poor while also benefiting the wealthy should be favored over a pre-existing policy that is absolutely worse for the poor while still being pretty darn good for those better off. “Not ideal but realistic” is better than “ideal but politically impossible”.
Continuing in that same vein, the financial concept of the time value of money must be taken into consideration. “A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow” is not just a logical outworking of finance theory, it is also a very practical truth: a family making median annual income or less would be much better served by their retirement dollars now rather than later. While that would indeed delay their retirement, doing so by another twelve weeks (to have two more children) is not so wildly awful that it shouldn’t be considered.
And—venturing here into purely speculative waters—it is also possible that this plan might actually have larger ripple effects, such as increasing the U.S. birth rate. Doing so can only help alleviate the larger issue of social security’s pending insolvency, which if left unaddressed will likely run out of reserve funds by 2034. There are a number of issues with our current method of paying for social security, but one of the biggest is that the nature of it depends on a birth rate above replacement (2.1 births per family). The U.S. birth rate in 2016 was about 1.8. Again, if an economic barrier to families having more children were removed, that may help increase this birthrate and bring it closer to replacement rate.
It is also worth pointing out that Bruenig’s piece is unfair in its characterization of the proposal. She states that the proposal “would likely mean that lower-wage workers would end up putting off retirement longer than wealthier workers with ample company benefits… [if] you’re not particularly well-to-do and you want a family, in other words, you’ll need to be prepared to pay for it in your old age: your family, your choice, your problem. ” This is true, but the way circumstances are described is a bit sensationalist. First, based on the estimate above, having five children means that a couple would have to work 30 more weeks before accessing their retirement benefits. This seven and a half months is not insignificant, but it seems a bit dramatic to say that this will be affecting you in your “old age”. It would take having nine children (and exercising the paid parental leave for all of them) to add an extra year of work prior to retirement. Again, I agree that it is unfair and far from ideal. But I imagine that many potential parents would be willing to work that extra time to have a stable source of income while taking time to care for their children.
The framing of the aforementioned section can also be misleading. Juxtaposing the discussion of “putting off retirement longer” with “wealthier workers with ample company benefits” creates confusion. Those wealthier workers will still have their company benefits, regardless of what happens with Rubio’s plan. At the very least, this proposal gives lower income families the opportunity to have families, even if it means sacrificing the opportunity to retire as early as possible. Again, the wealthy still benefit; but the proposal provides room for lower income families to be financially possible. The framing of the sentence does not make that clear.
Though it is imperfect, this provisional measure is at the very least a step in the right direction towards pro-family policy making. Conservatives often quote Andrew Breitbart’s famous line that “politics is downstream from culture.” The relationship between the two appears is actually much more symbiotic. The stream of influence works both ways, and often occurs simultaneously. If this is true, then policy that, while incremental, at least pushes us closer to the type of politics and culture that promotes human flourishing should be encouraged.
Bruenig’s concerns are not unreasonable, of course: our current system is that bad and her ideal is one I would support. But if we insist upon the ideal, we will lose because there simply are not votes to pass such a plan. And that would only mean that America’s poor would continue to live under the current regime. Instead, we must ask these two questions: Is it better than the current system? Is it politically possible? I believe that the answer to both questions is “yes.” And frustratingly, certain proposals that might be even better are likely not politically feasible. Small victories are exactly that, small. But someone once said that revolutions don’t happen overnight. Better they happen over the long term than not at all.
The opening sentence of Bruenig’s article mentions Augustine, whereas this response has no theological content at all as far as I can discern.