At a recent summit on the state of working American families, President Obama proposed that what working mothers need most are stronger, more secure maternity benefits. “Many women can't even get a paid day off to give birth," Obama pointed out. "That, we should be able to take care of." The president compared the United States’ relative paucity of maternity protections to the robust programs of other countries, notably France; of course, it isn’t only France the U.S. trails behind when it comes to securing work protections for families.
In fact, the United States is quite the outlier when it comes to comparisons with other industrialized nations. Compared with 38 other countries from Estonia to South Korea to Mexico, the United States comes in last in terms of government-supported time away from work for new parents. While other nations seem committed to ensuring parents have certain protections when it comes to taking time off to welcome new children into the world, the United States seems content to leave such matters up to the decisions of private employers.
Naturally the arbitrariness of private employers’ decisions when it comes to maternity leave policies affects women of different social classes differently: Those with highly paid jobs reap cushier maternity benefits, and those with lower-paid jobs are left to the mercy of their employers’ meager offerings. This means that some women – namely women with high-income jobs – will enjoy paid leave, and other women – those with low-income jobs – will only be able to claim unpaid leave. The asymmetry is immediately obvious; those with low-income jobs tend to have least in the way of savings and therefore rely upon working to support themselves the most. Is there a corrective on the horizon?
In a sense, yes: There is the proposed FAMILY Act, which would expand the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, and in doing so provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave yearly for qualified workers building their families. The payment would be capped at 66 percent of the worker’s regular earnings, and would come through a fund in the Social Security Administration scheme. It’s a fairly pale program compared to the robust offerings of other countries, but it would at least make motherhood a more feasible option for a portion of low-income women. Given the modesty of the program, one might presume it would encounter little opposition, but that expectation would be met with bitter disappointment.
Consider the YG Network, a populist-lite conservative outfit “dedicated to supporting conservative policies and the legislators who fight for those policies.” One would be sorely mistaken to count the protection of families and the promotion of family life among what the YG Network considers "conservative policies," given the attack they launched against the FAMILY Act in a recent publication. The YG Network sums the FAMILY Act up thusly:
Rather than the current mandate on larger employers to provide unpaid leave, the FAMILY Act would create a new federal entitlement program under which qualified workers would be entitled to 60 days of family and medical leave per year. When on leave, workers would receive two-thirds of their average pay from the federal government. This new entitlement would be funded with a dedicated payroll tax and administered through the Social Security Administration….Proponents claim this program would inexpensively provide needed assistance to those lacking paid leave, and would particularly benefit women by providing paid maternity leave. But while it would assist some women, it would also disrupt the employment contracts of the majority of working Americans who currently have leave benefits. This new federal entitlement would encourage businesses currently providing paid leave programs—including more generous leave packages—to cease doing so.
In other words, the YG Network doesn’t dispute the modesty of the program’s structure, as would be the usual fiscal conservative attack. Rather, their complaint is more indirect: They suspect the availability of federally funded maternity leave would motivate some companies currently offering cushy maternity leave packages to dispense with their benefits and ask employees to take advantage of the federal program instead. To be clear, their argument is that since some women with luxurious maternity benefits could potentially – and this is, by the way, an off chance – be asked by their employers to rely on the funds available through the FAMILY Act instead, the fact that scores of low-income women could access any paid maternity leave at all isn’t relevant. The relative discomfort of wealthy women outweighs the minimal security of the poorest, and the privilege of raising a family is better reserved, in their reasoning, for the well-heeled.
A charitable reading of this reasoning is still extremely damning; the most merciful reader could only conclude the YG Network merely as a conclusion – that any new federal benefit programs are inherently bad – that they work backward from to indict any policy that fails that litmus test. A less generous reading could conclude a sneaking disdain for the poor that would rather they simply didn’t reproduce, and therefore approved tacitly of economically based, class-specific forms of population control. Given the scarcity of programs advocated by conservatives that would actually benefit the poorest families, enabling them the greatest amount of freedom when it comes to having and raising children, the latter interpretation is especially tempting.
Depending on the eventual outcome of the United States’ struggle to implement some kind of consistent protection for poor families, it may be high time to rethink what we mean when we say "conservative": Though the aesthetics of the term tend to recall a pro-family past, the availability of family life to all members of society no longer seems politically important to modern conservatives.