Is Paid Family Leave Finally a Political Winner?

A growing (bipartisan) consensus surrounds a once contentious issue.

via wikimedia commons user Hillary for Iowa

Tracing the sudden rise of paid family sick leave from a political nonstarter to winnable campaign issue is as easy as comparing the Hillary Clinton of October 2015 with the Hillary Clinton of June 2014. Last year, the former secretary of state and current Democratic presidential nominee was promoting her new book, Hard Choices, when she told a CNN town-hall meeting she thought giving American parents time off to care for their children should happen, but that “I don’t think, politically, we could get it now.”

At the first Democratic presidential debate, Clinton was much more emphatic. “We can design a system and pay for it that doesn’t put the burden on small businesses,” she said. “I remember as a young mother, you know, having a baby wake up who was sick and I’m supposed to be in court, because I was practicing law,” Clinton said. “I know what it’s like. And I think we need to recognize the incredible challenges that so many parents face, particularly working moms.”

It’s not quite a flip-flop, but it does signal that the Clinton campaign realizes that now, more than ever, paid family leave is a political winner. The Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley campaigns clearly feel the same way: The two other Democratic frontrunners also gave impassioned defenses of paid leave during the CNN debate.

A quick reminder: The U.S. is one of just three countries to not have paid family leave. (The others, if you’re curious, are Papua New Guinea and Oman.) The 1993 Family & Medical Leave Act does ensure that some companies offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but the legislation does not apply to small businesses. The Department of Labor finds that more than one-fifth of mothers quit their jobs before or after their pregnancies—including half of all women with less than a high diploma.

Traditionally, the paid family leave has been pooh-poohed by conservatives, on the grounds that businesses can’t afford to give parents paid time off to spend with their children. In 1990, after President George H.W. Bush vetoed an earlier version of the Family Leave & Medical Act (that’s the one with unpaid leave), Republican Rep. John Boehner called the legislation "another example of yuppie empowerment."

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Family leave touches on a real nexus of conservative issues.[/quote]

But even for Republicans, it appears the tide is changing. A widely publicized 2014 poll showed that 81 percent of all voters believe providing equal pay, paid time off to care for children, and affordable childcare “is good for our nation.” That included 94 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Independents and 65 percent of Republicans.

Another poll, conducted last year by a women’s advocacy group, found that 60 percent of all women are more likely to vote for candidates who support fair pay, a higher minimum wage, and paid family and medical leave.

“Family leave touches on a real nexus of conservative issues,” Kay Hymowitz, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, explained to U.S. News. “On the one hand, it seems to be in favor of family values—it supports parents, it supports children. For that reason, it seems like something conservatives might like. On the other hand, conservatives are reluctant to introduce new government programs.”

via wikimedia commons user Michael Vadon

Indeed, GOP presidential nominees Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have all gone on the record against federally mandated paid family leave programs.

But Senator Marco Rubio hasn’t. The Floridian nominee—polling in fourth—released his own paid family leave plan last month. His policy proposals looks a little different: Instead of mandating that businesses provide leave, Rubio aks for a 25 percent tax credit to businesses that offer at least four weeks of paid family leave, capped at $4,000 per worker.

“Expanding access to paid family leave is part of Marco’s pro-family, pro-growth agenda,” the plan reads. “The status quo too often forces workers—especially new mothers—to quit their job permanently when they need time away from it, making it harder to return to work one day.”

Is it enough to incentivize even small businesses to offer leave to their poorest workers? Maybe not. But even long standing paid leave opponents are slowly coming around, and that’s excellent news for America’s working parents.

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