Ivanka Trump has been defending her father’s paid leave proposal, calling it a boon for gender equality and the nation’s most vulnerable workers. In fact, the plan would be a step in the wrong direction and exacerbate inequality, while diverting attention away from the most punitive budget provisions of our lifetime.
Let’s start with the basics. What the administration calls “paid family leave” is in fact paid parental leave. But even that term is misleading, since it’s limited to parents of newborns or newly adopted children. It doesn’t apply to parents of the 4-year-old who’s had a stroke or the youngster with cancer or a fractured spine. It also leaves out those caring for an ailing parent or partner or other loved one, or people caring for their own serious health condition. In other words, it excludes more than 75 percent of those who take leave under the current Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Ivanka’s responses to criticism have failed to address gender inequity in family leave policies. Originally, the plan was meant to cover only maternity leave. The administration and Ivanka took serious heat for such a limited policy, so they adapted a newer version in the budget to apply to fathers and nonbirth parents as well.
Unfortunately, as the ACLU has pointed out, many employers still assume women are more likely than men to take parental leave and may use this policy to discriminate against women in hiring or promotions. The FMLA includes self-care to, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in the 2012 case Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, “blunt the force of stereotypes of women as primary caregivers by increasing the odds that men and women will invoke the … leave provisions in near-equal numbers.” So much for Ivanka’s banner of advancing gender equality.
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Then there’s the issue of duration of leave. The Trump plan calls for six weeks. That’s less than many birth mothers need just to heal from the delivery process. It’s half of what the FMLA provides and half of what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends as the minimum amount of time for bonding with an infant. It also falls far short of the time needed by many adopted children—the vast majority of whom are not infants but come from foster care or other countries—to be integrated into their new families.
How about the funding source? The pay would come from state unemployment insurance funds, which pay about a third of an average worker’s wages–far below what’s needed for the vulnerable workers Ivanka talks about. Because the states would be in charge of administering the program, they likely would be able to decide eligibility. Right now, state-level restrictions mean only one in four people out of work in the United States are receiving unemployment benefits. Conservative state legislators might further restrict the definition of “parent” to “married spouse” or make other designations that would harm LGBTQ parents, among others.
Adding a new program to an already fragile unemployment insurance system could lead to cuts in existing benefits or higher taxes on employers, and it could undermine access to state funds during the next recession. Only 18 states have sufficient reserves to face even a mild recession.
In short, the administration’s proposal would provide too little time for too few people for too little money from an unreliable funding source.
But the problem may go even deeper. Ivanka’s defense of the proposal describes it as a “targeted benefit to help the people who need it the most and are least likely to receive it from their employer.” This new description of the proposal seems similar to one promoted by the American Action Forum (AAF), which pushed a targeted tax credit limited to those earning less than $30,000 a year. There are a lot of problems with this approach. Only 28 percent of all workers—and 13 percent of full-time workers—are in households with $29,999 or less per year. No workers in households with income above this level will be helped, yet as AAF points out, the vast majority of workers at any wage level have no paid family leave.
The AAF proposal might not apply to those who cobble together two or more part-time jobs. And if it’s a tax credit, few low-wage workers could afford to wait for a lump sum payment at tax time rather than during the actual time they are on leave.
Ivanka also talks about focusing on workers who do not receive any pay from an employer. If states are allowed to exclude people who do get some pay, we can kiss goodbye benefits for those whose “leave” amounts to accumulated vacation. Welcoming a new child is a great joy, but it’s hardly a vacation.
A network of state coalitions has been working for more than a decade at the state and national level to ensure paid family leave to all who need it. The mention of paid family leave in the president’s budget is a testament to the power of this movement and the overwhelming urgency and popular support for such a program. Successes in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island and new models being developed by other states are helping pave the way for a sustainable, affordable federal proposal that we already know will work and meets the “Triple A” test: accessible, affordable and of adequate duration for all workers who need time to care for themselves, a new child, or for a seriously ill family member. These states rely on a social insurance model, pooling small contributions to create a fund so employees who need time to care can draw a significant portion of their wages while they’re out on leave.
A federal proposal, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, has been sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut). It is before Congress right now after being introduced for a third time, yet has been ignored thus far by Ivanka and her father.
Above all, we can’t separate Trump’s paid leave proposal from the budget that contains it—a budget that calls for draconian cuts in Medicaid, food stamps, afterschool programs, and a host of other basic protections for working families. An administration that rips parents from their children in immigrant communities, tries to ban Muslims, and caters to white nationalists cannot put a wilting cherry on top of that mess and call itself a friend to women and families.