Republicans seem tempted to ignore these attacks. That’s understandable: Engaging with those lobbing accusations of sexism seems to hand them a victory just by giving the subject oxygen. Yet wishing the whole “War on Women” topic will just go away—or naively believing the media will help expose the rhetoric for what it is, name-calling and politics at its worst—is also a capitulation.
Conservatives have another, better option: enthusiastically jump into the arena of debating which policies will actually benefit women. In doing so, they can highlight who loses under the Democrats’ so-called “Agenda for Women”—spoiler alert: millions of women will pay the biggest costs in terms of lost economic opportunity—and offer an alternative vision of policies and initiatives that actually advances women’s interests.
The Democrats talk regularly about the need to help women better balance work and family responsibilities. Yet few bother with how proposed programs, such as a massive new federal paid leave entitlement programs and government-funded childcare initiative, would work in practice. When Americans learn more, they’ll see that these programs don’t help generally, but serve a subset of parents and create significant new costs for everyone else. The new taxes required to fund these initiatives constitute a small share of those costs. More importantly, women will pay a steep price in terms of more limited economic opportunities, less workplace flexibility, and more constricted childcare options.
Take the FAMILY Act, for example, which would dramatically expand the current Family and Medical Leave Act. Proponents make the case that this is necessary because not all Americans have access to adequate paid medical leave. Yet rather than targeting government’s efforts at those who really are in need of extra support, this proposal would upend the employment contracts of all working Americans and change the calculations that employers make as they consider new hires.
As we’ve seen with ObamaCare, working women who like their existing benefit packages should be warned that they might not be able to keep those plans either if this initiative becomes law. Businesses may stop offering their own benefit packages, instead relying on the federal program, so some women could end up with less leave coverage than before. Career-focused women with no plans to have children should also note how this new federal program would shape employers’ expectations. Managers may note that women workers of childbearing-age are likely to disappear for months-long leave and be reluctant to consider them for leadership positions.
That’s what we see in Europe. While the Left extols Western Europe’s generous family leave policies, they fail to mention that women there are far less likely to hold private-sector leadership positions than are American women. That’s because there is a cost associated with extensive leave time. It’s hard for companies to operate as efficiently when key employees are out for extended periods. One-size-fits-all government programs discourage honest conversations about how to handle such absences. Today some women may prefer to take only a few weeks off after the birth of a child and transition back by working from home or part-time. That can be a win-win for employer and employee. But government’s meddling and one-size-fits-all program would cut short such conversations, and stifle flexibility and women’s opportunities in the process.
Conservatives can offer an alternative vision. Rather than rewriting everyone’s employment contract, conservatives should focus assistance on those who truly struggle due to the lack of paid leave benefits. Using the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) as a model, they can develop need-based assistance programs for low-wage workers, which can provide economic support but that won’t destroy their job opportunities in the process.
Conservatives can also focus on the need to provide additional tax relief and support for families broadly. Democrats want government to provide more funding for daycare, but ignore the preferences of parents who overwhelming favor family-care or small, home-based care arrangements over institutional child centers. Such government subsidies don’t just provide financial assistance to those choosing institutional childcare; they can change the calculous for other families. It’s much harder to ask Grandma to watch the baby when there’s a free daycare center available, even if you think that junior is better off when watched by a loved one. Stay-at-home moms may believe they are adding value to their family by providing a loving environment, but it becomes harder to justify forgoing an extra income if they can be costless replaced by the government-subsidized daycare system.
Government shouldn’t be in the business of skewing parents’ childrearing choices. Conservatives should offer a plan to consolidate government programs that provide relief for subsets of parents (either through tax deduction or direct spending), and redirect those resources to expand the child tax credit. That would help all parents, regardless of the choices they make about how to care for their children.
Similarly conservatives should expose how progressive proposals for “equal pay” are really just empty rhetoric and an excuse to create more bureaucratic red tape and line the pockets of trial lawyers. They should explain that such government meddling is the enemy of job creation. Does anyone believe that the real key to for job creation and improving women’s job prospects is more lawsuits? More bureaucrats? Yet that’s all that proposals such as the so-called “Paycheck Fairness Act” offer, and conservatives should make sure the public knows it.
The Democrats’ “Agenda for Women” is simply another exercise in expanding government, from more workplace regulations to gigantic new entitlement programs. Republicans can explain to voters that their opposition to this plan isn’t a “War on Women;” it’s a call for common sense and to recognize that bigger government isn’t the answer and is in fact the enemy of job creation. Conservatives can look to a new book released by the YG Network, “Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class,” for more positive solutions that will grow the economy and truly help Americans.
Rather than feeling doomed by political tactics like the “War on Women” campaign smear, Conservatives should approach these conversations with confidence: They have a better vision for the future, and can offer women far better solutions than their opponents. Now, it’s time to make that case.
Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum, and a chapter contributor to the YG Network’s new book “Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class.”