A Government Program That Helps People Take Personal Responsibility

Here’s a question for candidates who hate non-income taxpayers but love moms, hate beneficiaries of government programs while hailing personal responsibility: Why not embrace a government program that helps moms – and dads, and sons and daughters and partners – take care of their loved ones and then return to their jobs, so they can take responsibility for themselves, support their families, contribute to the economy and earn enough to pay income taxes?

The Paid Family Leave program in California is exactly this kind of program. On September 23, we celebrate its tenth anniversary.

The PFL program replaces up to 55 percent of a worker’s income for up to six weeks when they need to take time off from work to care for a seriously ill child, spouse, parent, or registered domestic partner, or to bond with a new child (including adopted and foster children). Since the program began implementation in 2004, it’s been used more than one million times.

Here’s how it works: employees contribute a small amount directly into the program from their paychecks. The money goes into a social insurance fund. Like other insurance, that means it’s pooled, so that the funds are there when you need it.

Who benefits? Workers and their families, who are able to keep their jobs and stay home for a while to heal or provide care without risking their economic security.

Low-wage workers stand to gain the most security from the program, since they can least afford to take time off without pay and are the least likely to have access to employer-paid leave or any other paid time off like sick days or vacation that they can save for such an occasion. (Unfortunately, surveys show these workers are also least likely to know about the California PFL program. Much more outreach and education is needed.)

Middle-class workers also need this support to cover their basic expenses. Only 11% of private sector workers have maternity leave paid for by their employers. Virtually half of all mothers of newborns receive zero pay while they are out on leave.

Not surprisingly, that loss of income can throw a family into crisis. A 2001 Harvard Law School study found that a quarter of dual-income couples who filed for bankruptcy did so after one of them missed work to recover from an illness or to care for a family member suffering an illness.

Employers benefit from PFL as well. It’s better for business to have an employee gone for a short while than to lose the worker permanently. Research shows mothers with PFL increased their working hours when they returned to their jobs, correlating with an increase in their family’s earnings. Since many employers can’t afford to pay someone while they’re out on an extended leave, this employee-financed program is a great relief to businesses operating on tight margins.

Despite dire predictions by opponents that California businesses would flee or collapse after PFL went into effect, a 2011 study by researchers Ruth Milkman and Eileen Appelbaum found that 89 percent of businesses in California viewed paid family leave as positive or having no effect. Additional costs? Not according to 87 percent of employers surveyed; 9 percent said PFL saved them money.

Businesses, of course, also benefit when working people have financial security, freeing up money to spend.

But the benefits don’t stop there. Research shows that programs like PFL have quantifiable positive impacts on the health of women, infants and children including improved mental and physical health, better prenatal and postnatal care, and strengthened parental bonding.

In short, a program like PFL is one way to enable people to have the security and certainty they need. It’s a double benefit to women – giving them time they can afford, and allowing men to play a greater role in caregiving without the family suffering from total loss of income or falling into poverty. The proportion of men using PFL to bond with a new child rose from 17 percent to 26 percent over the six years since the program was implemented.

It’s always good to hear candidates say how much they love their mothers. But it’s much better to hear what policies they’ll support so all mothers—and fathers—can keep their jobs while caring responsibly for their families.