The Family-Unfriendly Administration
Bush Targets A Paid Family Leave Policy
by Elizabeth Sherman
February 23, 2003
Count on the compassionate conservative George W. Bush from the family values party to strangle an important family-friendly policy. In this case, the Bush administration seeks to kill a nascent initiative permitting states to use their unemployment-insurance funds to support paid family leave. The Department of Labor recently announced plans to eliminate regulations giving states the flexibility to tap unemployment insurance as a source of financing for paid family leave.
Such programs -- designed to help parents on leave from work after the birth or adoption of a child -- have found increasing favor among policy-makers. States have been pressured in recent years to correct the biggest failing of the Family and Medical Leave Act: namely, the absence of any wage replacement for employees taking parental leave. As a result, new parents must either decline family leave, or take it despite the enormous financial burdens it will entail.†
Bush's "...policy efforts reveal far greater devotion to cold conservatism than compassion."
Polls show that more than 75 percent of the public support expansion of state unemployment insurance to cover reasonable family leave costs. And although not one has yet passed a plan into law, some 16 states were in the process of initiating an unemployment insurance-funded paid family leave program.
The Birth and Adoption Unemployment Compensation regulations of 2000 were designed to expand an anachronistic system established in 1935, based on the premise that male workers are the sole support of their families. Fast forward to the 21st century, where most families rely on two wage-earners to meet the high costs of housing, health care and general expenses. The unemployment-insurance system has simply failed to keep pace with the needs of todayís workforce, which has seen a huge increase in the numbers of women and part-time workers.
The intent of the unemployment-insurance system originally was to help maintain the connection of employees to the workforce, a goal that that paid family leave clearly fulfills.
Furthermore, paid leave is a family-friendly policy that recognizes the staggering burdens that so many Americans face in their efforts to provide for their loved ones and maintain a decent standard of living. Given the economic sacrifices of taking unpaid leave following the birth or adoption of a child, itís little wonder that the numbers of households with dependent children has declined dramatically from 45 percent in 1970 to 33 percent today. Absent realistic and workable family policies like paid leave, the United States is seeing that more couples are postponing having children, or foregoing parenthood altogether.
Under the current regulations of 2000, states can determine whether to use their unemployment funds for paid family leave, or not. Depriving the states of a needed policy option undermines their powers and exposes the intent of the governmentís current labor policy: to weaken the rights and resources available to working families.
Thereís nothing in federal budgetary constraints requiring the elimination of a vital lifeline for new parents. Many states know a necessary social policy reform when they see one. And limiting the ability of states to expand unemployment compensation to cover paid family leave programs is a cynical attempt by the Department of Labor to squelch the reform impulse.
The Bush administration talks a good line on family values, but when it comes to serving the basic emotional, physical and financial needs of young families, their policy efforts reveal far greater devotion to cold conservatism than compassion.
Dr. Elizabeth Sherman is a fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University. This article first appeared in TomPaine.com (www.tompaine.com) ††