Three Cheers for Rubio's Paid Family Leave Plan

By John Hart, 
Opinion Contributor for Real Clear Policy

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s paid family leave proposal has scrambled the usual alliances in American politics like few policies in recent memory. Rubio’s bipartisan Economic Security for New Parents Act, which he unveiled with Congresswoman Ann Wagner (D-MO), has drawn praise and fire from the Left and Right. Thanks to Ivanka Trump’s support, it has even brought Trump world together with Democrats. 

The proposal would allow parents essentially to make an early withdrawal of their Social Security to finance paid family leave near their current pay level for at least two months. Families would pay back the withdrawal by delaying their receipt of Social Security benefits for three to six months at retirement. 

Rubio’s proposal is bold, ingenious, and subversive for three reasons. 

First, paid family leave is a great idea that should not belong exclusively to the Left. Who should fund family leave and how? These are important questions. But an honest look at the proposal should begin with accepting the overwhelming scientific and sociological data in favor of encouraging a strong parental bond with children early in life. That bond pays off in countless material and immaterial ways.

The National Center for Biomedical Information found that, “an increase of 10 full-time-equivalent weeks of paid maternal leave was associated with a 10 percent lower neonatal and infant mortality rate.” A 2016 University of McGill study similarly found each additional month of paid leave can decrease infant mortality rate by 13 percent. Other studies have documented the importance of early bonding for babies and described how that connection can positively shape the long-term mental health of children. 

Science is also documenting that fathers bond with infants in a manner not unlike mothers. As Live Science reports:

The bursts of oxytocin that women experience during birth and breastfeeding have been documented, so the mothers’ high oxytocin levels didn’t surprise researchers. What did surprise them was the fact that even without these huge hormonal triggers, fathers showed levels of oxytocin matching those of mothers during both time periods.

Studies also show that fathers are more involved if they’re given paid family leave and that their children benefit cognitively as a result.

The social impacts of paid family leave are overwhelmingly positive. The data also suggest the policy could produce enormous fiscal savings, even if indirectly. Paid family leave policies have increased the rate at which mothers return to work, which generates economic growth and tax revenue. Moreover, family stability is among the best ways to prevent poverty and homelessness. As a nation, we’ve spent $22 trillion combatting poverty over the past 50 years. Any marginal improvement family leave policies might have on family stability by strengthening parent-child bonds and reducing economic stress could generate significant savings. 

Rubio’s policy is ingenious and subversive also because it promotes the principle of ownership of Social Security funds.

Some critics from the right have questioned the fiscal wisdom of putting an additional strain on Social Security — which is already headed toward insolvency — by allowing present-day workers to divert “pay-as-you-go” Social Security funds toward paid family leave. For instance, Joanne Butler, a Republican former staffer with the House Ways and Means Committee, argues: “It’s not a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s about robbing old Peter to pay young Peter.”

This analysis misses a critical point. Rubio rightly contends that it’s not the government’s money. It’s Paul’s money; Paul can’t rob himself. Rubio’s proposal is consistent with previous Social Security reforms backed by conservatives, such as former Senator and Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, who believe the best way to save the program is to promote the principle of ownership. 

Rubio’s ability to persuade a Democrat to back a policy that advances the principle of ownership is something conservatives should applaud. 

Finally, Rubio is deftly outmaneuvering forces on the Left who want to go much farther. 

Conservatives often fret that proposals like Rubio’s are misguided efforts to “outbid” the Left. If conservatives provide funding for questionable priorities, this thinking goes, liberals will simply ask for more money rather than thank conservatives for their compassion and generosity. In some cases, that may be a fair point, as with farm subsidies — but not here.

The choice at hand is not between Rubio’s plan and the status quo but rather between Rubio’s plan and a far more costly and authoritarian solution that will increase payroll taxes and coerce businesses to provide paid family leave. If history is any guide, Congress is most likely to choose a payroll tax increase to “reform” Social Security, which they’ve done five times since the program was created. Rejecting Rubio’s proposal could mean we’ll get a payroll tax increase as well as a new payroll tax increase to pay for a new paid family leave entitlement program. That’s two tax increases and a new entitlement program in the name of faux purity.

Conservatives already made a similar mistake with Obamacare. Rather than embracing tax credits as a way to help those who don’t have access to employer-sponsored coverage people shop for insurance, some conservatives derided the proposal as a new entitlement. The result? A new entitlement called Obamacare.

By reimagining entitlements with long-range outside the box thinking, Rubio is offering both parties a detour away from the coming entitlement cliff. At the same time, he’s changing the debate about paid family leave, which will only encourage private companies and states to look at the data with fresh eyes and perhaps offer their own innovative solutions.  

Rubio’s proposal is the kind of happy warrior leadership we need more of American politics. Too often, serious policy arguments are hijacked by unimaginative button-pushing and base pandering masquerading as real reform. Rubio’s policy may not be the perfect answer. But it is far better than most of the alternatives.