News Politics

A Looming Family Leave Plan in Congress Could Harm Parents With Disabilities

Robyn Powell

By requiring parents to tap into their Social Security benefits, Republicans would put the well-being of disabled parents—especially women and those of color—in jeopardy.

Efforts to pass paid family leave are gaining momentum across the country. Just last month, Massachusetts became the sixth state, along with the District of Columbia, to pass legislation mandating it in some form. As attention to the importance of paid family leave, intensifies, however, it is vital that the needs of all families be considered—including parents with disabilities.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate held a hearing to discuss potential federal family policies, featuring two competing proposals. Democrats advocated for the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act (S 337/ HR 947), first proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in 2013, which would fund up to 12 weeks of paid leave at two-thirds salary for new parents, employees with serious medical conditions, and people who need to care for sick family members. Funding for the proposed bill would come from a small payroll tax, averaging about $1.50 per week for a typical worker.

Conversely, Republicans testified in favor of a proposal that would allow for paid family leave for new parents only. Under the proposed plan, which has the support of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), new parents would reportedly be eligible for 12 weeks of paid leave, but they would need to tap into their individual Social Security retirement benefits to do so. Paid leave for workers with serious medical conditions and people caring for sick relatives would not be available. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Joni Ernst (R-IA) are expected to soon unveil legislation based on this plan, and have been promoting it on social media and traditional outlets in the meantime.

Critics contend that the Republican proposal would harm the Social Security system as well as disproportionally and negatively affect women, people of color, and low-wage workers by lowering their already insufficient retirement savings. They fear larger families with many children will also be hurt.

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There is another group of families that will likely be harmed by the Republicans’ proposed plan: parents with disabilities. Although the exact prevalence is unknown, researchers estimate that there are at least 4.1 million parents in the United States who have a disability and have children under the age of 18; several million more parents with disabilities have adult children. Further, 6.6 million children—nearly one in ten children in the United States—have a disabled parent. But although their numbers are substantial, these families have been largely overlooked in paid family leave discussions.

If it remains consistent with the IWF’s outline, the Republicans’ proposed plan not only requires parents to tap into their Social Security retirement benefits but provides only a limited part of one’s wages. The average-wage worker would receive approximately $1,175 per month in benefits, or 45 percent of their salaries—an insufficient amount for many, especially those in cities with high costs of living. Parents with disabilities are often already struggling financially and this will only cause further hardship. A 2017 study found that parents with disabilities are more likely than parents without disabilities to be living below the federal poverty level.

Indeed, such a plan will disproportionately hurt women, especially women of color and those with disabilities, because on average, women have lower Social Security retirement benefits than men. In part, this disparity is due to the gender wage gap, which is even wider for women with disabilities, particularly disabled women of color.

According to the National Council on Disability, “The financial status of parents with disabilities and their families is particularly significant, because they often have additional expenses connected to their disability (e.g., medication, adaptive equipment, transportation, and housing modifications). Parents with disabilities also often have additional expenses for assistance in caring for their children (e.g., specialized transportation or [personal assistant services]).” Again, the government should be committed to improving the financial circumstances of these families rather than robbing of them necessary benefits.

Mothers with disabilities, like all women, will be especially affected by this plan because they are more likely to take parental leave. Indeed, research has found that mothers with disabilities are more likely to experience adverse birth outcomes, including longer hospitalizations after delivery.

Similarly, mothers with disabilities may also need longer leaves following childbirth to allow them to obtain the necessary adaptive parenting equipment and supports. According to a study of new mothers with disabilities by the National Research Center for Parents with Disabilities, “Once their children were born, participants also struggled to find information about accessible equipment they could use with their children, like cribs, bassinets and changing tables.” The National Council on Disability has noted similar findings: “Resources are lacking to provide adapted services and adaptive parenting equipment, and to teach adapted parenting techniques.” The scarcity of such supports can lead to longer delays—hence, the need for longer leaves.

And of course, longer leave, especially under the Republicans’ likely plan, leads to reduced income.

Paid family leave is long overdue in the United States, and it is critical that policymakers move quickly to finally implement it. At the same, it is important that all affected communities be involved, and that includes parents with disabilities and their families. Although the Democrats’ plan is closer, a plan that truly addressed U.S. parents’ needs would mirror those of other countries: It would be longer, pay more, and cover more situations.

Parents with disabilities, like all parents, need both a comprehensive paid family leave plan and Social Security benefits. Hopefully, in the near future, all families, including those with disabled parents, will finally have access to paid family leave that will allow them to care for their families without putting themselves and families in financial turmoil.

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