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Kamala Harris’s new paid family leave plan is the most generous yet

Six months of paid family leave would be sweet. But how does Harris plan to fund it?

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris walks up to greet a mother cradling a baby at a bookstore.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris greets Emily Ragsdale and her baby, Noa, at a bookstore on Feb. 18, 2019, in Concord, New Hampshire.
Elise Amendola/AP

Kamala Harris just unveiled a massive plan to give new parents and caregivers up to six months of paid time off from work.

The proposal is part of her new “Children’s Agenda,” which aims to cut childhood poverty in half and includes benefits such as childcare subsidies and free preschool for low- and moderate-income families.

But Harris’s promise to provide workers with paid parental leave is worth focusing on. It’s the most generous paid-leave proposal from any of the 2020 candidates and would put the United States in line with most of the world’s developed countries by offering parents generous paid time off to care for a new child. It would also apply to workers who need to take time off to care for a sick relative.

“Guaranteeing six months of paid leave will bring us closer to economic justice for workers and ensures newborn children or children who are sick can get the care they need from a parent without thrusting the family into upheaval,” Harris said in a statement announcing the proposal.

Her plan goes far beyond Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s signature legislative proposal, the Family Act, which most other Democratic frontrunners have endorsed, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg. That plan provides three months of paid leave to families, with up to 66 percent of each worker’s income covered by a small increase to payroll taxes (paid by workers and employers). Both parents could each use the benefit when they choose to.

Harris’s plan, on the other hand, is lighter on details. Families earning less than $75,000 would get 100 percent of their income covered for six months, but it’s unclear what percentage is covered for everyone else. It’s also unclear how much the program will cost. Harris’s team says funding would come from raising payroll taxes, corporate taxes, and income taxes on the top 1 percent of income earners. Yet the plan doesn’t mention how much of a tax increase that would involve. That’s an important detail, considering that six months of paid leave won’t be cheap.

Still, Harris should get credit for tackling an issue that matters to most voters and working families. And while it may seem radical, it’s really not. Researchers consider six months of paid parental leave ideal for a child’s health and a parent’s employer. It would also ease the financial strain on working-class families.

Americans want paid parental leave and the US economy needs it

The idea of a government-run program to provide maternity and paternity leave to new parents is not controversial. About 74 percent of registered US voters in 2016 said the government should require businesses to offer employees paid parental leave. When you break down poll numbers, the support is overwhelming across genders, political parties, and even income groups.

Another survey shows that 82 percent of voters believe working mothers should get paid maternity leave. Whether the respondent was Republicans or Democrats, male or female, didn’t matter — a majority support the idea that all parents should get paid time off.

In other words, it’s a safe political issue for Democrats and Republicans to tackle, if only Republicans weren’t so hesitant to make businesses pay part — or all — of the cost. Right now, under federal law, workers can take up to four months of leave after the birth or adoption of a child. But there is no requirement that it be paid.

Nearly every industrialized country in the world provides working mothers with at least three months of paid maternity leave — the minimum recommended by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization. In most of those countries, employers and employees pay a tax to fund the benefit. Canada has this type of system, which allows parents to take a year of leave while receiving 55 percent of their salary the entire time (up to 80 percent of wages are covered for low-income workers).

Some US businesses voluntarily offer paid parental leave to their workers, but only about one in 10 workers in the country get such a benefit from their employer. Low-wage workers are the least likely to get it.

In response to federal inaction on the issue, several states have started requiring employers to provide some paid leave: California, New York, and the District of Columbia are among those that do.

Research shows that paid-leave programs improve child health, promote gender equality, and help keep women in the workforce. Studies indicate that California’s paid-leave law, which went into effect in 2004, led to an increase in work hours and income for mothers with young children. And paid leave has been linked to lower poverty rates in 18 countries.

The need for paid leave in the United States is more urgent than ever, as nearly half of two-parent US households have parents who both work full-time jobs. Economists believe the lack of paid leave is one reason more American women aren’t joining the labor force, and that’s bad news for the US economy. About 59.1 percent of women over the age of 20 are part of the US workforce, reflecting a slight decline since 2008 when 61 percent held full-time or part-time jobs.

When women joined the public labor force en masse in the 1970s, their earnings were a huge boost to the US economy, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama. They attributed nearly all of the middle-class income growth since 1970 to the rise of women entering the US workforce. But female participation in the job market began to flatten out in the 1990s, even among women in their prime working years (25-54 years old).

Nearly a third of this decline of American women in the labor force can be explained by the lack of family-friendly workplace policies in the United States, including paid leave for new parents, according to research by economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn at Cornell University.

Coming up with an effective paid parental leave system in the United States isn’t hard. The hard part is getting Republicans to agree that businesses should pay for some of it. Harris hasn’t mentioned how she would persuade a potentially divided Congress to pass such an ambitious paid-leave program if she were in the White House. What’s clear is that it’s a huge improvement over what Republicans have put forward.

Republicans have the worst plan for paid leave

In March, Republicans in Congress tried to revive a flawed plan to give working parents paid maternity and paternity leave.

Sens. Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced a bill called The Cradle Act, which they describe as the best option for paid leave because it doesn’t create “a massive mandated government program.”

But the truth is, it’s not paid leave at all. It’s another version of unpaid leave that workers would have to fund themselves.

Here’s how it would work: The Cradle Act would let workers access some of their Social Security retirement income in advance to make up for some of the wages they would lose when taking parental leave. Workers would still bear the cost of taking time off — by delaying their retirement by twice as many months as they took off for parental leave. Someone who takes the maximum three months off, for example, would need to delay their Social Security retirement benefit by six months.

The bill is nearly identical to one Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) proposed last year, called the Economic Security Act for New Parents, with support from White House adviser Ivanka Trump. They didn’t get enough bipartisan support for it so it went nowhere.

So far, The Cradle Act also has very little support. And it’s possible that Harris’s plan could end up like that too. But her Children’s Agenda is not a bill, it’s a campaign message. Harris needs a boost in the polls to have a chance in the race, and she’s betting that a campaign focused on working families will make the difference.