Cries for family leave call for review
Liberals are salivating over prospects of a progressive Congress warming to proposals for paid family and medical leave next year. For the sake of taxpayers and working women, they need to dry up.
Yes, President Clinton's signing of the UNpaid family and medical leave bill was one of the most popular of his legislative initiatives. And expansion of unpaid leave is a good idea. But expanding unpaid leave into paid leave would amount to yet another massive government-administered social program provoking a taxpayer revolt on the scale of that against welfare.
Two points: When proponents argue for paid maternity (and paternity) leave, they usually cite two cause-related reasons. First, they say most other western industrialized nations (to wit, Europe) offer paid maternity leave (the largest category for which family and medical leave is used.) Second, they claim paid family and medical leave is wildly popular with the American public.
This ditty from Gonzaga University's Web site is fairly typical in its assessment of U.S. policy on family and medical leave (12 weeks of unpaid leave) versus that of two European countries. In France, it says, "All mothers, regardless of marital status, age or race receive a package of benefits that includes health care, cash allowances, and a public nursery school system. This not only provides for the betterment of children's lives but also creates a climate that encourages women in the workplace." Paid leave in France, by the way, can last as long as three years.
In Germany, in addition to tax breaks, exemptions and other cash benefits, "Parents receive up to 14 weeks of paid leave at 100 percent of their net earnings. Eight of these weeks can be taken postnatally. This leave is not limited only to the mother but can be alternated between the mother and the father up to three times until the child is 3 years old."
This argument (America is stingy, Europe is generous to new parents) ignores the following salient fact.
Europe is an aging, graying continent. European governments need to pay (in essence, bribe) their young families to bear more children, so the average age doesn't morph into old age. We have the opposite problem. We are overwhelmed with new, young citizens.
Government figures show the U.S. fertility rate is 2.1, or at about replacement value. But immigration is driving up population so quickly, that we just passed the 300 million person mark, and are expected to reach 350 million by midcentury. Conversely, during the past few decades, Europe's overall fertility rate has dropped to approximately 1.5. In Italy it is below 1.3. And European countries do not allow the sort of immigration influx we do here. As one commentator notes, "Europeans as we know them are a dying breed."
The second point used by paid-leave advocates is that polls show it's supported by the vast majority of Americans. A recent survey in New Jersey showed about 80 percent approval. But as so often is the case with public polling, stop and think about it. If a pollster asked you, "Do you want paid family leave to take care of a newborn or an ill relative?" Of course you'd say yes. If, however, the question posed was, "Do you want to pay more taxes so someone else can take time off with a newborn?" the poll results would turn upside down.
In 2004 California became the first state to offer paid leave.
Last year the state reports it took in more than 600 million in additional payroll taxes and paid out around 300 million -- the vast majority of it to mothers with newborns. But a scholarly report on California's paid leave program said paid leave is underutilized because potential leave-takers complain they can't afford six weeks of leave at a maximum 55 percent of normal salaries. They need more money. California workers already pay an additional 1 percent or so of their salaries in taxes to support this program. Like toll roads, the cost of benefits and taxes to pay for them are going nowhere but up.
American families would be better served with this approach.
First, they need to learn that if they can't afford to raise children, they shouldn't have them -- at least not until they're well-enough situated to pay for day care for them. Second, we should spend whatever money we'd otherwise spend on subsidized leave on education. An educated populace is self-sufficient and doesn't need government handouts.
Erbe, a TV host, writes this column for Scripps Howard.