Paul Ryan, the newly-elected Speaker of the House, went on a bit of a tear talking about paid family leave this weekend. The Wisconsin Republican appeared on a number of the Sunday news shows to explain why he doesn't back policies that would bring the U.S. in line with the rest of the world and ensure workers paid time off when they have a kid or need to take care of a sick family member.
"I don't think people asked me to be Speaker so I can take more money from hardworking taxpayers to create some new federal entitlement. But I think people want to have members of Congress that represent them, that are like them," Ryan said on Fox News Sunday. "Don't you want your member of Congress to be a citizen legislator who lives with you, among you, who has your own kinds of concerns, who wants to spend time with his children on Saturdays and Sundays?"
I would wager that Ryan is right on the latter point. Yes, people really do want a legislator who shares their concerns, which is precisely why he should support universal paid leave. It isn't some kind of fantasy to expect that the U.S. can figure out, like virtually every other advanced economy in the world, how to ensure working parents can take time off without losing necessary income. It's expecting these families to do without it that's magical thinking.
As I have pointed out before, a majority of the public, regardless of party affiliation, supports paid leave. According to a 2015 poll from The Associated Press and GfK, 70% of people say they want employers to pay their employees if they take time off after giving birth or adopting a new child, including 55% of Republicans. That's probably because the challenges parents face when trying to balance their work and home lives isn't a partisan issue.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than 15% of workers in the U.S. have access to any kind of paid family leave. Low-wage workers, as you might expect when families are living paycheck to paycheck, are hardest hit if they lose wages in order to stay home with a new baby. And while a small but growing number of private companies have implemented generous paid leave policies, those policies—like Netflix's offer of a full year of unlimited time off for new parents—often leave out their own low-wage workers. This correlates to the gaps in access we see reflected in the data: according to the same report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just one in 20 workers in the bottom quartile of earners can take time off without losing a paycheck.
As Terri Boyer, executive director and assistant research professor at Rutgers University’s Center for Women and Work, recently told me when I asked about market solutions to the problem of access to paid leave: “We’ve already let the market have its say.”
“A number of employers already offer it to their highly valued employees—it’s about employee retention,” she explained. “So if you leave it up to the market, you’ll have a very similar situation to what we have now: paid family leave is offered to certain employees, but not to all."
Ryan, like many other Republicans who oppose legislation that would guarantee all workers paid time off, often cites fiscal concerns as the basis of his position. Rand Paul has also criticized current proposals—including from Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders—as unrealistic because, as he told me about fully subsidizing in-state college tuition, expanded government programs "can’t be free, somebody has to pay for it.”
While Ryan and other prominent conservatives in the Republican primary—Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush— have argued that the government should leave paid leave to the private sector, we have data showing that the government can, in fact, craft policies that work for employers and employees: In California, where a universal paid leave policy has been on the books since 2002, studies have shown that there has been no adverse impact on employers, including small businesses.
As I have also pointed out before, a study from the Center for Economic Policy Research found that nearly 87% of employers reported no cost increases associated with the California law. And almost one in 10 reported that the policy had helped them cut costs “by reducing employee turnover and/or by reducing their own benefit costs."
So the question of where's the money going to come from is one that Ryan should ask working families themselves. If you want to talk about funny math, ask how a family of three surviving on a single, minimum-wage income is supposed to make ends meet when, in a place like Washington, D.C., just paying for infant care that allows them to return to work will eat up 102% of their budget.