When President Barack Obama recently supported a push by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) for a paid family leave benefit, women across the country — including many of my friends and neighbors — were enthusiastic supporters. Every woman who’s tried to juggle children and careers understands the value of paid time off after giving birth.
Under the measure, workers and employers would pay 0.2 percent of their salary in exchange for up to 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds their typical monthly salary. Beyond maternity leave, the time could be used for a serious illness or caring for a sick family member.
As a mother, I empathize with the desire for a new paid benefit. But as a policy analyst who’s studied the experience of Europeans facing this same issue, I worry about the unintended consequences for the people we’re trying to help.
This issue hits home for me. As a working mom, I faced the challenge of balancing my work responsibilities with the joy of welcoming three babies in three years. My organization is small enough to fall outside the requirements of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but our chief executive saw value in an arrangement that provided some paid leave and a temporary work-from-home option.
Had my husband and I lived in his native Denmark, life would’ve been different. I would’ve been paid for a year to stay at home, beginning a month before each of my babies was born. It sounds nice, but Danes pay a price for those 52 weeks. Their income tax rate tops out near 60 percent, and they pay a value-added tax of 25 percent.
While the U.S. proposal would offer just three months of paid leave, there still is cause for concern. This plan might start at 12 weeks, but ultimately could be extended. And while many women would love more paid time off with their children, extended leave can negatively affect their career trajectories when they return to the workplace.
The Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz examined the impact of Scandinavian leave policies on women’s career trajectories and found evidence that it “hardened” the glass ceiling. In her words, “long maternity leave puts women on a mommy track from which they have a hard time exiting.”
It’s also concerning for the government to control and administrate this benefit. We’ve seen too often with other entitlement programs the dangers of putting bureaucrats in charge of very personal issues.
If the government insists on being involved on this front, there’s a better way: The U.S. could permit individuals to save funds tax-free to cover expenses for family leave, much as Americans can for medical costs with health savings accounts and college tuition with 529 plans. Setting aside 2 percent of each paycheck would provide an employee making $50,000 annually access to almost $6,000 within five years. That’s more than enough to cover a typical maternity leave, and it’s an approach that would empower the individual while continuing to incentivize work and avoid the pitfalls so commonly associated with government initiatives.
If we really want to empower women, then we owe it to ourselves to be aware of the side effects of cradle-to-grave government programs. We’re not Europe, and we shouldn’t want to be: Having largely ceded retirement, education and now health care to the control of others, we should not depend on government to provide family time, too.
Personal responsibility for some of our most private experiences shouldn’t be crowded out as government pushes in. Otherwise, our lives become a little less our own. That’s something worth considering carefully before diving in to another feel-good policy with unintended consequences.
Kristina Rasmussen is executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute.