For some moms, decisions about when and how much to work while our children are young are among the hardest we will make. For other moms, like those who act as primary or sole breadwinners in about 40 percent of American households, those decisions don’t feel like a choice at all – their families depend on their income.
The American family and work force has changed rapidly in the last generation: Today about 70 percent of mothers (with children under 18) work, compared to 47 percent in 1975. During this time, there’s been a red-hot cultural debate about women’s roles, what it means to be a “feminist,” and what public policies we should put into place to ease some of the pressures on working moms.
One important public policy debate is about paid family leave. Should our laws do more to guarantee working moms (and dads) time off after the birth of a new baby? This issue is not just political, but personal.
I would know; I’m expecting my second baby to arrive in just a couple of months.
But there’s a lot at stake in this complex debate, especially considering how diverse American families have become. I can’t presume every family is like mine, or that every mom wants the same kind of maternity leave arrangement I want. To me, being a feminist means supporting other women in their choices, even if they differ from mine.
Two commonly discussed solutions for the paid leave dilemma are new entitlements and new mandates on employers. But stay-at-home parents and childless workers don’t need paid family leave, so it wouldn’t be fair to ask them to fund a government program to pay workers during this time off. Mandates on employers come with costs, too, ultimately making it less likely employers will hire and promote women of child-bearing age.
Clearly, we need a paid leave policy that treats all families and workers fairly, and minimizes the unintended consequences that backfire on women in the workplace.
Finally, there’s a plan that does just that.
Several Members of Congress are championing a new paid family leave proposal originally advanced by Independent Women’s Forum that would increase access to paid parental leave for those who need it most, but without penalizing those families that choose not to have children, or families with children who keep a parent at home, or those who have access to paid leave benefits already.
Instead of raising taxes on all workers, this plan would reform the existing Social Security program to offer working parents a choice to take “parental benefits” early (after the addition of a new child) in exchange for delaying retirement benefits later. Parental benefits would be calculated according to the disability formula, meaning lower-income families would see a greater portion of their pay replaced during a family leave period.
The beauty of this plan is that the choice lies with the individual worker. It’s completely voluntary. Workers who do not opt in would see no changes to their compensation, benefits, or Social Security. What better way to honor the variety of choices that women (and men) make about work and family life?
As the American workforce continues to evolve (with more workers seeking greater flexibility in the gig economy and non-traditional jobs) and our family structures continue to become more diverse, we should focus on policies that give all workers the greatest freedom and choice. Our plan does this with respect for the myriad different ways modern American women choose to direct their own lives. That’s worth celebrating.