Paid leave used to be a political pipe dream--now it could be a litmus test for the presidency

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In the first major economic policy speech of her campaign, Hillary Clinton made one thing abundantly clear: paid leave, affordable childcare, and boosting women’s participation in the workforce are going to be central to her economic agenda in the coming months.

Speaking Monday morning at the New School in New York, Clinton said that these policies—which for years have been sidelined as "women's issues"—would serve as an anchor to her economic agenda. This is no small thing.


Paid leave used to be the stuff of political fantasy, but it’s quickly become a kind of political litmus test among Democrats. And Clinton's speech is a clear example of how much can change in a year. It was just last summer when Clinton told CNN that she supported paid leave but didn’t see it as politically possible.

“I think, eventually, it should be [the law],” she said before offering the following caveat: “I don’t think, politically, we could get it now.” But as the political mood leans populist and states like California and New Jersey serve as case studies for what paid leave laws look like in practice, Clinton has become far more decisive on the issue.

Compare her comments from last June to what she offered on Monday:

The movement of women into the workforce over the past forty years was responsible for more than three and a half trillion dollars in economic growth. But that progress has stalled. The United States used to rank 7th out of 24 advanced countries in women’s labor force participation. By 2013, we had dropped to 19th. That represents a lot of unused potential for our economy and for American families.

Studies show that nearly a third of this decline relative to other countries is because they’re expanding family-friendly policies like paid leave and we are not. We should be making it easier for Americans to be both good workers and good parents and caregivers. Women who want to work should be able to do so without worrying every day about how they’re going to take care of their children or what will happen if a family member gets sick.


Clinton is hitting the same point that President Obama laid out earlier this year in his State of the Union address: paid leave is not a niche issue, so let's stop treating it like one. And voters seem to agree. Recent data points to the fact that most Americans, regardless of party affiliation, support some kind of paid leave policy.

But as Clinton hits harder on the issue, Republicans who oppose paid leave are bound to raise the question of cost. The argument that it's expensive might carry less water, though, as data coming out of California and other states with paid leave laws on the books reveals that it can be cost neutral for businesses and a driver of growth.


According to a study from the Center for Economic Policy Research, when asked if California's paid leave program had caused “any cost increases,” 86.9 percent of employers said "no." Around 9 percent of employers responded that the policy had actually helped them save money "by reducing employee turnover and/or by reducing their own benefit costs when employees used the program instead of (or in combination with) employer-provided paid vacation, sick leave, or disability benefits."

And Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economic policy at the New School, told Fusion that many family-friendly policies, when coupled with other economic reforms, can eventually pay for themselves. This extends beyond paid leave, she said, pointing to Clinton's remarks about universal preschool.


“Money can come from a growing economy, and that's what I heard today,” Ghilarducci explained. “Clinton very clearly pointed to an economy that will have more women and parents in the workforce. If universal preschool does that, then it pays for itself.”

And the proposals Clinton laid out aren’t just about supporting working women, she continued: “Increasingly, there are more men who are dependent on income from their wive’s or the mothers of their children. They are also having trouble getting [reliable] schedules and getting paid. Men and women need more help from the government, they need more choices.”


A more robust set of programs to support working parents also ties into the question of what constitutes a living wage. While Clinton hasn't offered a hard number, even the highest option on the table—$15 an hour—will leave many families struggling. But universal preschool and paid leave could bring the minimum wage somewhere closer to livable, Ghilarducci explained.

“This is a very coherent economic message," she said. "It wasn't a call for spending, it was a call for investments that would compliment each other.”


Clinton's team has yet to respond to Fusion's request for comment on the centrality of paid leave this election.

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