Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka promised during the Republican National Convention that her father would offer more help to working families, and this week the elder Trump laid out more of the specifics: six weeks of paid maternity leave for new mothers and a new approach to tax breaks for child-care expenses. Perhaps the best that can be said is that it’s refreshing to see a Republican presidential candidate advocate for federal paid family leave policies and financial assistance to help working parents afford the tremendous cost of raising children.
The plan itself? Like so much of what Trump has said during the campaign, the proposal falls short on details, including how to pay for these new benefits, and it’s woefully out of touch with the needs of many families. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s plan is similarly lacking in key details, but at least it’s more attuned to the challenges faced by the growing proportion of American families with no stay-at-home parents.
And yet, the nation is probably better off with Trump offering a flawed, half-baked plan, rather than no plan, because it suggests a bipartisan consensus that maternity leave and child care are critical national issues that the federal government can do much more to address.
The U.S. is one of the few industrialized nations that does not mandate the provision of paid leave for new mothers. Only 11 percent of American workers are covered by paid family leave programs. Research has shown that women are more likely to leave the workforce when their employer doesn’t provide paid maternity leave, which is bad for family incomes and bad for the larger economy.
For women who do stay in the workforce, the next challenge is paying for child care. More than half of U.S. children under five require child-care alternatives because their parents work. For an increasing number of families, child care is their single largest expense – higher than what they pay for their housing. The annual cost of day care in some regions can be as much tuition at a public college.
Under Trump’s plan, new mothers would be guaranteed a portion of their paycheck during six weeks of maternity leave, paid through the existing, employer-funded unemployment insurance system. Unemployment benefits vary from state to state; on average, they cover about one-third of a worker’s wages. Trump wouldn’t increase the tax on employers; instead, he would cover the added expense by reducing waste, fraud and abuse in the unemployment insurance system. Good luck with that.
Notably, his plan is limited to maternity leave – not paternity leave. That only enforces an outdated family model in which mothers are the primary caregivers, giving employers a disincentive to hire younger women and denying many fathers the opportunity to bond with and care for a new baby. Clinton’s plan, by comparison, calls for 12 weeks of paid leave at two-thirds pay for both mothers and fathers. She has said she would cover the cost with higher taxes on the wealthy, which is also not a sure thing.
On child care, Trump would lessen the burden by giving parents a tax deduction for the average cost of child care in their state. For example, his campaign said a family earning $70,000 and paying $7,000 a year for child care would get an $840 tax cut – or about a month’s worth of day care. But the deduction would provide the greatest benefit to wealthier families, who pay more income tax. Low-wage workers, who often spend a disproportionately large share of the income on child care, pay little or no income tax. For families that pay no income taxes, Trump would increase the Earned Income Tax Credit by as much as $1,200 a year. But a once-a-year-check from the government is not always helpful for families struggling week-to-week to pay their childcare bills.
Clinton has said she wants to significantly increase direct subsidies and tax breaks so families don’t have to spend more than 10 percent of their income on child care. Subsidized care could be a big help to the parents who are paying 30 percent or more of their income for day care, but it would also be very expensive. And Clinton hasn’t spelled out how she could pay for it beyond, again, raising taxes on the wealthy.
The U.S. has failed to keep up with other industrialized nations on family leave and child care. Perhaps that’s because they have been framed as women’s issues, when in fact they’re important to the economy, social justice and the future prospects of millions of young Americans.