The majority of developed countries around the world have some sort of government-financed paid family leave policy. Some countries more liberal than the United States—like Sweden—have 18 months of paid leave, while more conservative countries—like Australia—cover the first 12 months. Adopting a similar policy here in the United States has been a hot topic of conversation, especially among political candidates. But what do the majority of Americans think about paid family leave?
The Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC recently unveiled the findings of a survey of American voters on the topic of paid family leave. Henry Olsen is Senior Fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and he joins Traci DeVette Griggs on the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast this week to discuss the surprising findings of this survey.
Perhaps the most surprising find of the survey was that support for paid family leave spanned party lines. Americans want paid family leave, from Republicans to Democrats to Independents. “It is significant that there is support across the partisan boundary for this,” says Olsen, “because there typically is a thought that the mass of Republican voters are opposed to any sort of interference in the economy—whether it’s something that a private employer does, or more especially that the government does. We find that that’s not true here, so it shows that there are some common values.”
But Olsen acknowledges that Americans, especially conservatives, will have to make a choice: autonomy versus government “interference” to strengthen family and improve newborns’ wellness. “There’s a lot of evidence that the initial bonding is very helpful to a child’s subsequent development, and that’s what paid family leave facilitates. […] Paid family leave makes it possible for a mother to [be close to her child] without sacrificing her job or her income.”
“We live in a world where we have a large government that’s not going to go away anytime soon, so I think the better way for conservatives to think about this is whether or not supporting family life and supporting family choices is an appropriate intervention in the context of a system that’s going to have interventions anyway.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear more from Henry Olsen about how a paid family leave policy might be implemented in the United States.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Paid family leave; it’s a concept we’re hearing more of these days. Americans are looking for ways to balance family and professional life, especially with new babies or family medical conditions that require care.
Henry Olsen joins us today to discuss this issue. He is Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and a Washington Post columnist. He recently unveiled the findings of a new survey of American voters on paid family leave.
Henry Olsen, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
HENRY OLSEN: Thanks for having me on.
TRACI GRIGGS: First of all, what prompted you to drill down in this issue? Why is that a topic you feel is important and needed more study?
HENRY OLSEN: Well, it’s something that is increasingly becoming an important public policy proposal by both President Trump and by Democrats. And it’s something that hasn’t been terribly studied a lot by major pollsters, so there was a gap to fill.
TRACI GRIGGS: Great. The Ethics and Public Policy Center commissioned a study to learn more about American voters’ opinions on paid family leave policies. So what did you find?
HENRY OLSEN: Well, what we found generally is that Americans would like to have paid family leave. They would prefer it be offered by an employer than by the government. But they definitely would like to be able to have the ability to take time off, either to care for a sick relative or to, more commonly, care for a newborn. And they don’t want huge amounts of time. There are some European countries that offer six months or a year, but basically [Americans] settle around the three month period as something that they would like—somewhere around 12 weeks that they could take up to without having to lose either their job or get a significant cut in salary.
TRACI GRIGGS: And you found that this crossed political lines as well, right?
HENRY OLSEN: That’s right. Republicans and Democrats and Independents all support this idea. One of the surprising aspects of this is that even when you mentioned the government as being the sponsor or the provider of the paid family leave, you get lots of Republicans—in fact, the majority of Republicans—who support it. Only a minority would oppose that. Where Republicans might differ from Democrats is that they would prefer that the net cost to the government be nil. But even there, you’d have substantial numbers of Republicans who would be completely fine with an increase in government expenditures if this benefit were provided.
TRACI GRIGGS: So in general, who do most people think should pay for this?
HENRY OLSEN:In general, most people would prefer that the employer would pay rather than that it come from the government exclusively. They would also prefer that there not be raised taxes for this, and of course that circumscribes things. If an employer were to pay for it, it would have to come from somewhere. Somebody’s going to have to get less so that the people who get paid family leave get more, and that’s not something we asked about. And with respect to the government, there are different ways that you could try and make it a net-neutral impact on the federal budget. But that again comes with winners and losers, and there’s not a clear majority in favor of any option.
TRACI GRIGGS: What other significant things did you find in your survey?
HENRY OLSEN: Well, one of the things that’s particularly interesting is how important this is to some key voter groups. Hispanics are particularly favorable to it. Independent women are kind of off-the-charts in favor of it, and both parties are trying to find a way to court the nonpartisan, swing-voter woman. This seems to be one policy that would be an important one to have in their arsenal as they try and do that.
TRACI GRIGGS: Is it significant that we seem to be in general agreement on this issue? I mean we can’t seem to agree on much these days.
HENRY OLSEN: It is significant that there is support across the partisan boundary for this because there typically is a thought that the mass of Republican voters are opposed to any sort of interference in the economy—whether it’s something that a private employer does, or more especially that the government does. We find that that’s not true, so it shows that there are some common values. Of course the devil becomes in the details, and the more there is a specific proposal, the more discord there might be. But again, even there, there was large agreement across large segments of the parties that this is something that’s worth doing, even if it might cost a little more money.
TRACI GRIGGS: Okay, so you talk about the devil’s in the details. What are some of the things that you’re finding that people disagree on then?
HENRY OLSEN: One of the things that’s problematic for people in the survey is a proposal to use Social Security payments. Some proposals allow that you effectively borrow against your future Social Security—that you can get certain amounts of leave time now if you agreed to delay your ability to get the time when you can get Social Security payments in the future. That was something that was roughly split in the survey. But when you dig down, you find it’s very interesting that it was older people who either are close to or receiving Social Security now who largely oppose that. People in childbearing ages largely favored that, which suggests that the issue isn’t so much the ability to borrow, but rather assuring older Americans that you can do this and their benefits would still be safe. But that was the proposal that, along with increasing taxes, also did not get a huge lot of support. So, people don’t want to pay higher taxes for this. And there’s a lot of question about whether you should be able to borrow against Social Security in order to finance this. Those are the things that we tested that had the most significant disagreement.
TRACI GRIGGS: I guess you didn’t survey this, but are you getting any sense for if business organizations are opposing this, in favor of it, or come down on either side yet?
HENRY OLSEN: Yeah. A lot of businesses are offering this as a benefit already—whether it is as part of a short-term disability policy where pregnancy and the aftermath is characterized as a short-term disability—or independently. But the vast majority of employers are not. In particular, the vast majority of small employers are not. Employers have not really weighed in too much. Typically they prefer that somebody else pay for the cost of those benefits, which means that if it’s going to come, they’d almost certainly prefer that it come from the government rather than be a mandate on them themselves. But this is not yet something that the business community has really prioritized—or the different parts of the business community, the small versus large business especially, has come to a consensus.
TRACI GRIGGS: So how do you suppose paid family leave is compatible with the conservative philosophy of small government? How do we work that out as conservatives?
HENRY OLSEN: Well, that’s actually a choice that I think has to be made. If you’re comfortable with the current system—most workers, particularly economically vulnerable workers, do not have access to this—then what you’re saying is, “Okay, we prefer liberty to a position that could strengthen family and improve newborns’ wellness.” We live in a world where we have a large government that’s not going to go away anytime soon, so I think the better way for conservatives to think about this is whether or not supporting family life and supporting family choices is an appropriate intervention in the context of a system that’s going to have interventions anyway. And I think on that score, you’d find that most conservatives would say, “If the government is going to intervene, we want it to intervene on the side of families rather than the side of liberal programs or special interest demands.”
TRACI GRIGGS: Okay. So is a widespread or even nationwide family leave policy workable in your opinion? And are there examples of paid family leave policies that have worked in similar economic systems?
HENRY OLSEN: We are pretty much an outlier in this as the United States. Most other, if not every other country that is a developed country offers some type of government-financed paid family leave policy. Even more conservative countries like Australia have a government-financed paid family leave policy that covers the first few weeks after birth. So we have lots of evidence to show that it works. The longer the leave, the more expensive it is, and that of course is problematic. You not only increase taxes in order to pay for that, but you also keep somebody out of the labor force longer. And you know if somebody takes a year off to be with their newborn, they are a year behind when they come back. They haven’t worked with new people in their business. Some of their skills may—particularly in a technological world—be less relevant and that could hurt rather than help. But all of these systems are compatible with high levels of employment, high levels of wellbeing, and high levels of economic development. So I think it’s pretty clear that the system can work. The question is whether America wants the trade-offs in how to manage them.
TRACI GRIGGS: And what are the biggest challenges, do you think, to implementing this paid family leave policy?
HENRY OLSEN: You know, most of the other countries that do this do not have some of the strictures that the poll suggest Americans, or particularly conservatives might want, which is that they do tend to add to government expenditure. So if you’re going to try and do it on a net-neutral basis, then the question is what gets phased out in order to pay for this? And that would be a very contentious battle if that were what was going to happen. I also think one of the large obstacles is the slippery slope argument, which is, “Yes, you can start it at 12 weeks, but inevitably it’s going to expand as people try and bid for a voter’s support.” And that also was a real issue; there clearly would be a risk of that, and it could start at three months, but in 15 years it could be six months or nine months if that’s the way the voters go. Then that of course increases costs and increases the sum of those trade-offs. So I think those are some challenges: addressing how to deal with the cost; how to deal with if it’s an employer mandate, which just seems to be what’s favored. Of course, how to deal with offsetting some of that with respect to the cost, particularly for small businesses. So those are some of the challenges, is how to make sure that you get the right benefit that is targeted to the right people, that doesn’t displace existing plans to the extent possible. And also doesn’t cost too much money.
TRACI GRIGGS: You mentioned the benefits, but can you be a little more specific or outline a few more? What are the public and social benefits of having a paid family leave policy in place?
HENRY OLSEN: There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that newborns particularly do well when they are either breastfed or are in close proximity to their mother in particular, during the first few months of life. And paid family leave makes it possible for a mother to do that without sacrificing her job or her income. To the extent that they’re many paid family leave policies that also include fathers—or to the extent that it’s not possible for a woman to spend three months—it also means that a parent can be present, which is also very helpful. As opposed to putting a newborn immediately into a structured, impersonal childcare system. There’s a lot of evidence that that sort of initial bonding is very helpful to a child’s subsequent development, and that’s what paid family leave facilitates.
TRACI GRIGGS: Right, and of course for those of us who are getting older and have friends who are trying to take care of either spouses that have dementia or parents, this could also be very valuable, I would think, on the other end of the spectrum as well.
HENRY OLSEN: Right. We tend to focus on the newborns because that would be the most frequent use of it. But there is that question. That’s also something that we could use. We could mention and to talk to older people—who would be concerned about cost or with respect to the Social Security program—about whether the risk to Social Security as they might perceive is worth the cost. The fact is there are lots of people who would have to deal with elderly parents who need care, or they need to take time off in order to manage their transfer to a structured care setting that’s appropriate for them. And this would be something that gives them the security of being able to do that. And that too is something that just makes families stronger as opposed to mere units that are of equal value as anything else in the economic production scheme.
TRACI GRIGGS: How does paid family leave fit into the current benefits or welfare program structures that we have?
HENRY OLSEN: It wouldn’t fit neatly into it because so many of our welfare programs are need-based, in the sense of need-based on income. There are proposals that would make it more like a welfare program and less like an entitlement program, and that would be something that would need to be discussed. One thing that could be done if the government is going to increase expenditures is subsidize the pickup of businesses to offer the sort of short-term disability policies that would provide it privately. Again, many large companies—particularly those serving professional workforces with large numbers of women—do this. One way to address this would be to do some of the subsidizing of private insurance that would use the public funds to target more effectively.
TRACI GRIGGS: Great. Well we’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go, where can our listeners go to learn more about paid family leave and see the survey results that we talked about today?
HENRY OLSEN: The survey results are posted on the Ethics and Public Policy Center website, which is eppc.org, and you can find the survey results there as well as videotapes of two events that we’ve held that discussed the details and also provide some of the counter arguments from a conservative or libertarian perspective.
TRACI GRIGGS: Great. Well, Henry Olsen, thank you so much for joining us today on Family Policy Matters.