When President Trump called for paid family leave in his State of the Union address, critics noted the administration hasn’t made much progress on the issue, despite the fact that it featured prominently in his campaign.
That may change soon, with the help of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. In an interview with Politico, the Florida lawmaker revealed he has been strategizing with Ivanka Trump on ways to make paid family leave a reality—a priority for the first daughter and presidential advisor since her days on the campaign trail.
But policy analysts are skeptical about the duo’s new proposal, which would enable parents to draw on their Social Security benefits to care for a new baby, and then delay their checks when they hit retirement age.
“Workers really shouldn’t be asked to pay for their paid leave today by rolling the dice on future needs for social security,” says Vicki Shabo, the vice president for the National Partnership for Women & Families. “Social security benefits are already inadequate for most people, and they’re most especially inadequate for women,” she adds, noting that women receive on average $300 less than men in monthly social security payments due in part to the time they take off work for care-taking.
Aparna Mathur, Ph.D., a resident scholar in economic policy studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, shares that concern. “I worry that the proposal will primarily leave the childcare burden on moms because I suspect both parents will not end up pulling money out of retirement. And that means women will be even worse off in retirement.”
Whether the funds would even be available is an open question. Lawmakers have expressed doubts for decades that social security will be solvent by the time younger workers retire. “Social security is already underfunded,” Dr. Mathur explains. “So the idea that you could pull forward your money from social security and then pay back into it later just doesn’t sound feasible to me.”
So far, Rubio has not drafted a bill or developed a legislative strategy to tackle paid leave, but he has exchanged emails with Ivanka Trump on the topic, Politico reveals. The idea to tie a program to social security has been floated by several conservative organizations in recent weeks, including the Independent Women’s Forum, which touts the strategy as a way to “expand access to paid family leave without raising taxes, growing the government or hurting workers’ economic opportunities.”
Funding paid leave by using an existing government program might also make it more appealing to Republicans, who are typically hesitant to launch new entitlements—a fact that Rubio acknowledges will be a big barrier to its success.
“We still have to work on members of my own party,” he told Politico. “I think there will be significant initial resistance to it, because it’s just not an issue that’s been identified with the Republican Party.”
Shabo’s also concerned that if the plan hews to the one proposed by the Independent Women’s Forum then it will only provide paid leave for new parents—and exclude workers who need time off due to a serious illness or to care for sick family members. “Creating a program that only focuses on paid parental leave leaves out millions of people. It also causes more resentment against new parents,” she explains.
Rubio didn’t reveal any details on what the ultimate proposal would look like—including, critically, how much parents would be paid. Dr. Mathur notes that even if the plan provides a progressive benefit to lower-wage workers—i.e. more money—those workers don’t usually have job protection under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). (Only 60 percent of U.S. workers are covered by the law.)
“So would they even bother to pull forward that money? Or just try to use up their savings and then return to work as soon as possible?” she points out.
Nonetheless, the idea is a step closer to the FAMILY Act, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and to paid family leave laws that have recently been passed in New York, Washington state and Washington, D.C. Though the mechanisms for funding the policies are different, all of them utilize a government agency to provide payments to working parents while on leave.
“It’s encouraging to be having a broader conversation,” Shabo acknowledges, but with a caveat. “We only have one shot to do this and we don’t want to take a shortcut for the sake of political expediency.”