Many conservatives (rightfully) breathed a sigh of relief that the Democrats’ $5 trillion Build Back Better plan didn’t pass last year. But certain provisions of the bill, such as paid family leave, are likely to resurface given the continuing challenges facing American families.

This is a huge opportunity for conservatives to show how they can help. Specifically, conservatives should put forward a paid leave plan for new parents that strengthens workforce attachment, improves health outcomes and protects families – in ways that minimize business or fiscal burden, unlike the Democrats’ plan.

For American parents, paid leave upon the birth or adoption of a child is all too rare. Fewer than one in four workers has access to paid family leave from employers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In comparison, workers are much more likely to have sick leave (nearly 90 percent) or temporary disability insurance or medical leave (nearly 50 percent) from their employers.

While workers often cobble together vacation and sick leave to cover the time away following a child’s birth, nearly 40 percent of workers report not being paid at all, rising to more than 80 percent for workers earning less than $30,000. Adding insult to injury, 40 percent of all workers don’t even have job protection following the birth of a child, because of job tenure and employer size rules associated with the Family and Medical Leave Act.

As a result, nearly 25 percent of women go back to work within two weeks of childbirth, according to an analysis of a Department of Labor survey. Unsurprisingly, this is associated with a host of downsides, including reduced rates of breastfeeding, one of the highest neonatal fatalities rate in the developed world, maternal depression and more.

Some states have taken action to change that, with nine states and the District of Columbia having passed paid family leave programs. Research on these state-based programs has found significant economic and health benefits that accrue from access to paid leave, specifically for new parents and infants.


For example, a study of California’s paid family leave program, which provides six weeks of paid leave for new parents and to care for family members, found that the weekly work hours and wages of new mothers rose by between 10 percent and 17 percent. A study released by Rutgers in 2012 found that paid leave reduced a woman’s likelihood of using food stamps by 40 percent in the year following her child’s birth. Mothers are more likely to return to their same jobs and with higher wages, providing their families with more financial independence.

Paid parental leave has been found to help children too. It is associated with improved outcomes for children, including lower rates in infant mortality, increased duration of breastfeeding, and a reduction in low birth rates. Economist Christopher Ruhm estimates that 10 extra weeks of paid parental leave reduces neonatal deaths by 2.9 percent. This would save hundreds of babies’ lives each year. It would create more space for healthy attachment and could increase fathers’ involvement later in their children’s lives.

Conservatives have tended to worry about the burden of a new “entitlement” on business or the government, but such concerns can be mitigated by policy design. A paid leave program for new parents dramatically cuts down the expense relative to a more comprehensive leave package. A six- to eight-week paid parental leave policy would cost somewhere between $5 billion and $10 billion, which, for perspective, is less than 1 percent of what the government spends on old-age entitlements annually.

Additionally, public paid parental leave programs have had overwhelmingly positive reactions from the business community. Polling from California reveals that nearly 90 percent of employers have reported a positive impact or no impact from the introduction of paid family leave. Interestingly, small employers have been more positive than large firms. This could be because smaller firms might have a harder time financing paid leave benefits themselves; thus, they may benefit more from a public program that provides this benefit for them.

Paid leave doesn’t need to fall into the binary trap that forces Americans to choose between either an expensive and unwieldy Democrat-led paid leave plan such as that included in Build Back Better – or maintaining a broken status quo, wherein nearly half of families lack pay or job protection upon the birth of a child.

The reality is that there are prudent choices for reform in the middle.

It’s time for conservatives to put forward a plan that cuts through the gridlock, to the benefit of all American families.

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