Three Bad Arguments for Government Paid Leave

Government-provided paid leave is back in the headlines, and Ivanka and company are in the process of building a Republican coalition for it. The coalition includes Republican senators Mike Lee, Joni Ernst, and Marco Rubio.

As a result, bad arguments for government paid leave are increasingly pervasive on both sides of the aisle. Last week, Caleb O. Brown and I discussed three of the usual suspects, outlined below. 

1) All other industrialized countries have paid leave, so Americans should too.

This argument is used by almost every public proponent of government paid leave. It represents a logical fallacy, colloquially the “bandwagon fallacy.” After all, it doesn’t matter so much whether other countries have government paid leave, but how the policy worked out for them.

Unfortunately, there are many examples of unexpected and costly consequences of government paid leave. For example, in the Nordic countries, government paid leave has contributed to a glass ceiling for professional women. This issue was outlined in a recent Cato policy analysis paper, The Nordic Glass Ceiling

A paper circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds women in the United States are more likely to have full-time jobs and work as managers as compared to other OECD countries because the United States lacks a paid family leave policy and other mother’s work entitlements. Throughout Western Europe, about 30 percent of legislators, senior officials, and managers are women. But in the United States, 43 percent of legislators, senior officials, and managers are female. Economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn note than in other OECD countries, women are about half as likely as men to be managers, whereas women are approximately equally likely to be managers as men in the United States. 

The workplace is also less segregated in the United States than other OECD countries, and women are more likely to be professionals. Gender equal characteristics of the U.S. labor market would likely suffer if government paid leave is introduced.

2) Only 15% of workers have access to paid leave.

Advocates use a thoroughly misleading BLS statistic in order to create alarm. Rather than using a clear, straightforward figure, activists use a BLS statistic that does not count benefits that can be used as paid family leave. 

A majority of workers have access to functional paid family leave benefits, according to other federal data sources and national surveys. For example, the National Survey of Working Mothers found 63 percent of employed mothers said their employer provided paid maternity leave benefits. That is in line with Pew research which found that 63 percent of “Americans who took time off from work in the past two years for parental, family or medical reasons report that they received at least some pay during this time.”

These surveys estimate the number of workers recieving paid leave is almost 50 percentage points larger than the BLS figure. The BLS statistic is an extreme outlier, even among federal data sets like Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), the Current Population Survey (CPS), and the Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA) worksite survey. The BLS figure should be treated as an outlier, rather than relied upon to make a case for government paid leave.

3) Government paid leave is popular.

Polling on paid leave is used disingenuously. Americans often agree that working mothers and fathers should receive paid leave following birth or adoption of a child, but they disagree sharply about how it should be provided. And Americans do not think that paid family leave is a policy priority.

On a Pew list of 20 different policy topics, Americans ranked paid leave as last priority. A recent Pew poll found that only 12 percent of Americans thought the federal government should provide paid leave.

Of Americans that said employers should provide paid leave, about half said employers should not be required [by government] to provide it.

Of course, if pollsters reminded respondents that under a national program taxpayers would pay for paid leave, under a government mandate employees would pay for paid leave, and under either regime women would pay for paid leave in one way or another, Americans would look even less supportive.

With these government paid leave myths dispelled, the debate should be more honest and productive.

You can find the related Cato Daily Podcast on bad arguments for government paid leave below.