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A Bipartisan Approach to Paid Family Leave

A report authored by researchers from the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute reviews the options for a national family leave program.

In recent years, the issue of paid family leave has garnered attention from politicians on both sides of the aisle. And while progress on a national program seems to have stalled, advocates have won notable victories at the state level. Six states and the District of Columbia have successfully passed paid family leave legislation, and more are considering such measures.

For the last several years, a bipartisan working group of researchers from two prominent D.C. think tanks—the Brookings Institution (often described as center-left) and the American Enterprise Institute (often described as center-right)—has been studying the issue in the hopes of identifying bipartisan proposals. Last year, the group of researchers released a report analyzing a national paid parental leave policy; in the report, they endorsed a compromise proposal consisting of eight weeks of paid time off for new parents, financed through an employee payroll tax.

Earlier today, the researchers released their report on a paid family care and medical leave program. The report, which represents the consensus view of the group's "diverse group of experts," reviews the arguments for such a policy as well as competing proposals, and estimates the costs of a paid national family leave program.

As women have increasingly entered and remained in the work force following childbirth, the issue of paid leave for caregivers has gained urgency. According to the report, only 15 percent of "civilian workers had access to a specific paid family leave benefit in 2017, ranging from 4 percent of workers in the lowest wage decile to just over one-quarter in the highest wage decile."

And while some workers have access to paid sick and vacation time that they utilize to care for children or ill relatives, these demands place real burdens on caregivers (who are disproportionately likely to be women). Workers who don't have access to such perks are left to struggle, the report notes:

According to the Department of Labor survey discussed above, 48 percent of leave takers who received partial or no pay drew upon savings earmarked for this leave, 37 percent drew upon other savings, and 30 percent borrowed money. But many Americans have not saved enough for an extended period out of work or lack access to credit. Thus, over one-third of these leave takers put off paying bills, 15 percent went on public assistance, and 31 percent cut their leaves short.

Unlike the previous year's report, the AEI-Brookings working group did not reach an agreement on the need for a federal paid family care leave policy. Some members argued that "there is not a lot of unmet need for family care leave and worr[ied] that paying for it would impose burdens on taxpayers, employers, and employees that are not warranted given what we know at this time." (The group did, however, agree on a proposal for a medical leave program, administered via a national temporary disability program.)

Included in the report is also an estimate of the cost of a comprehensive, universal, national paid family leave program—covering parental leave, family leave, and medical leave—that provides up to eight weeks of leave. The researchers estimate that such a program would cost anywhere from $7.6 billion to $46.3 billion (using different data sources and different estimates of take-up). Interestingly, the researchers also find, under all three methodologies, that personal medical leave would constitute a much bigger proportion of spending and benefit claims than either parental or family care leave.

Given the current political climate, a national paid family and medical leave policy seems unlikely in the near future. Efforts like these, however, provide a valuable starting point for future bipartisan conversations.