President Obama’s speech at the White House Summit on Working Families saw digressions into raising the minimum wage and self-satisfied referrals to the Affordable Care Act. But its focus was on paid family leave and pregnancy accommodations, and ought to be seen by conservatives as a challenge to meet legitimate needs without sacrificing principle and expanding centralized authority. The president advocated for the federalization of employment laws as he called for Congress to leave “none of our country’s talent behind.” Conservatives should provide an alternative.
As the president himself put it, “Work gives us a sense of place and dignity as well of income, and it is critically important, but family is also the bedrock of our lives.” He called for society to create an environment in which everyone can achieve a balance between work and family. That’s an ideal to strive for, a conservative principle to agree on, but what the president saw as a last resort when calling out his opposition—saying that if Congress doesn’t take action to address these issues then we’ll need mayors, city governments, state legislatures, governors, CEOs, and companies to act—should become the foundation for a genuine discussion by conservatives about how America can promote the family.
The president wasn’t wrong when he said that allowing parents to spend time nurturing their infant child or caring for an ill relative, without sacrificing financial security, is not a “women’s issue,” but rather a common-sense issue. He was right when he rejected the category “women’s issues” altogether, pointing out that anything that makes life harder for women makes life harder for families—though I defy him to stay consistent even as he supports abortion. Paid family leave, especially paid parental leave, is a good thing. Federal mandates on businesses, or a centralized one-size-fits-all program paid for by increased federal taxes, are not good things.
The president is leading by example. Like the CEOs of the companies he referenced at the summit, including Google and Johnson & Johnson, Obama gives paid leave to his White House staff when they have a child, must care for a sick or injured family member, or are themselves sick or injured. In his speech he called for other federal departments to do the same. If realized by redistributing rather than expanding their funding, there seems little wrong with that. On the contrary, it’s just the kind of conscientious and competitive payroll move more businesses could consider making.
Three states have programs to provide paid family leave: California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. California’s and Rhode Island’s are paid for by an employee payroll tax and benefits are based on income. New Jersey’s is a combined employer and employee payroll tax. Considering these states' financial positions, it hardly seems like the wisest expansion of state disability programs. It is, however, the kind of decision states should be making, not the federal government. Beyond questions of constitutional allocation of powers and responsibilities, states necessarily have a clearer understanding of the needs of their citizens, and can tailor a more responsible allocation of resources while also refraining from further ballooning the federal bureaucracy.
The president’s audience expressed their disdain when he mentioned Congress. He replied, quite sensibly, “Don’t boo; vote.” Conservatives should heed the same message when they hear calls for Congress to pass laws addressing paid leave. Rather than boo, they should vote, and say, “Let's deal with it.” Let's address the balance between work and family with action in churches, and communities, and cities, and counties, and businesses, and state legislatures. The United States is the only developed nation without provided paid maternity leave. That’s only a demerit if we don’t have something better. The president said, “Whenever I can act on my own, I’m going to.” For this, don’t give him the chance, or the reason.