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June 12 2014

Ignoring Economic Costs Isn't Compassionate

National Review
Carrie L. Lukas

Jessica Grose at Slate attempts to argue that Christians should support government paid family-leave programs. Grose does a sloppy job of making the connection, but certainly she is not the first to argue that Christian faith should lead people to support more generous government support systems for families. The flaw in her argument is that most Christians are more sophisticated than she imagines when it comes to thinking about public policy.

Strip away the “What would Jesus do” ornamentation, and her real argument for government-mandated paid family leave is simply that too few workers — particularly low-income workers — have access to such benefits.  She specifically takes issue with what I authored for the YG Network:   

A recent publication put out by the YG Network, a conservative policy nonprofit, called Room to Grow, argues that paid family leave from the government is a bad idea because, “while it would assist some women, it would also disrupt the employment contracts of the majority of working Americans who currently have leave benefit [sic]. This new federal entitlement would encourage businesses currently providing paid leave programs—including more generous leave packages—to cease doing so.”

First of all, the majority of working Americans don’t have leave “benefit,” unless you count unpaid FMLA leave, which doesn’t cover about 40 percent of employees. Oh, and some studies show that almost 20 percent of employers don’t comply with FMLA leave anyway. So then, YG Network is actually talking about the 11 percent of pretty exclusively upper class workers who get paid family leave, and who might lose some of that leave in order for 100 percent of workers to get any paid leave at all.

(First, I’m not sure where Grose pulled that quote — in the actual chapter available at YGNetwork, there is no typo in “benefits.” Perhaps there is a typo in some marketing material or in a derivative quote, but Grose ought to consider reading the actual chapter too.)

Grose’s data concerns workers with paid family-leave benefits only, but that is not a good proxy for paid-leave benefits that are available following the birth of a child.  Many companies prefer to offer more general “personal leave” that can be used for family leave, sick time, vacation, or other reasons, rather than have different categories of leave, which can be more burdensome to administer.   

Fortunately, the Census Bureau has research that shows what generally happens to working women following the birth of a child. Census reports that 56 percent of full-time working women used paid leave following the birth, 42 percent used unpaid leave, 10 percent used disability leave, 19 percent quit their job, and nearly 5 percent reported being let go (this adds up to more than 100 percent because some women used more than one category of leave).  Part-time workers were more likely to quit (37 percent reported quitting their jobs) and had less access to benefits:  20 percent used paid leave, 46 percent used unpaid leave, and just 2 percent had disability leave. Census also found that three months after the birth, 59 percent of the women who worked during pregnancy had returned to work, and 79 percent were working by their child’s first birthday.

This data doesn’t lead to the conclusion that all Americans have access to adequate leave time — a point I explicitly made — but it also should caution against Grose’s hasty conclusion that 89 percent of workers would be better off under a government-run leave system. 

As I write in Room to Grow, there are costs to government-mandated leave policies that ought to be considered, including that these mandates depress wages and reduce economic opportunity for women. Supporters of paid family leave often point to Europe as a model we ought to follow, but ignore the reality that women there are much less likely to be breaking glass ceilings than are their American sisters.   

Certainly there are a lot of women who would prefer to have more generous leave packages.  Many employers are moving in that direction, and technology is making possible new solutions, such as job sharing and work-from-home arrangements. A one-size-fits-all government program (like the FAMILY Act) would discourage this continued evolution, and the economic consequences, particularly for women, deserve more serious consideration than Grose can apparently muster. 

Rather than dictate the leave policy for all workers, policymakers ought to focus their efforts on helping those who truly face hardship because of the lack of leave following the birth of a child.  As I write in Room to Grow, an initiative modeled on the EITC could help the working poor following the birth of a child, without distorting economic incentives for hiring these workers. 

Jesus taught us to show compassion for those in need. He didn’t tell us to ignore the real-life consequences of economic policies.

— Carrie Lukas is a vice president at the Independent Women’s Voice and managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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