The US is the only country in the OECD that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave
Has Joe Biden just found his way to the hearts of voters from Lakewood to Monsey?
In his first speech to Congress last week, the president laid out a vision for America that was straight out of the progressive left — with policies on child tax credits and paid maternity leave that could ease the burden on the country’s hard-pressed parents.
The Biden administration had already expanded child tax credits temporarily as part of the coronavirus relief bill. In the 2021 tax year, the administration will distribute $300 per month for every child under age 6, as well as $250 for children aged 6 to 17. The idea is that instead of a tax allowance, parents will get a check every month or financial quarter, the rationale being that struggling families will get far more help from monthly checks than from a year-end tax allowance. This proposal is estimated to cost $1 billion annually.
Biden now wants to expand what was intended as a one-time relief measure until at least 2025. As with most of the administration’s proposals, this would significantly increase government spending. At least half the lawmakers in Congress are expected to oppose it. One can’t help but wonder what the voters will have to say about this ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
But the most important proposal Biden raised during the speech was paid maternity leave for 12 weeks. Former president Trump approved a 12-week maternity leave for federal employees during his term. Biden had promised during the campaign to extend this to all workers.
According to the proposal, employees who take maternity leave will be able to recoup two-thirds of their salary, up to $4,000 per month. Aside from maternity and medical leave, the plan (the American Families Plan) also covers a range of other situations — for example, caring for a sick relative, dealing with a loved one’s military deployment, and taking time off after a loved one’s death.
The estimated cost of this proposal is $225 billion per year, and Biden suggested paying for it by raising taxes on corporations and those making over $400,000 a year. Here, too, Biden touched on class tensions between middle- and low-income earners and the wealthy. It’s far from clear the plan will muster a majority in Congress. Biden’s plan will also force employers to give their employees up to seven days of paid sick leave.
But even as Republicans gasp at Biden’s profligacy, it’s worth remembering that America is an outlier in its treatment of working mothers.
The US is the only country in the OECD that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave. Of the 41 OECD countries, only 14 offer less than 20 weeks of paid maternity leave (Israel offers 15 weeks of full pay). A third of the developed countries offer between 20 and 40 weeks, among them Portugal, Greece, South Korea, and Japan. The average for EU members is 20 to 30 weeks of maternity leave with full pay.
Another third of developed countries offer between 40 and 60 weeks of paid maternity leave, including Norway, Germany, and Austria. Three countries — Estonia, Hungary, and Lithuania — force employers to provide over 60 weeks of paid maternity leave, with Estonia the most generous at 86 weeks of full pay. Lithuania and Portugal also give fathers four and five weeks respectively of paid paternity leave.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of working mothers in America increased from 51 percent to 72 percent over the past half century. Despite this, the American economy hasn’t adapted to accommodate them, as there’s no mechanism to ensure they can keep their jobs after going on maternity leave. It should be noted that a number of states, such as California, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, as well as Washington, D.C., have mandated paid leave on the local level, but the conditions of this coverage vary from state to state.
The child care and maternity bonanza are just part of the progressive vision outlined in Biden’s speech — a shift in outlook that has taken many by surprise. From a $15-per-hour minimum wage to gun control, to the extensive section about climate policy — there was no issue on which Biden’s positions didn’t line up more or less exactly with those of the progressive wing of his party.
Biden’s supporters will point out that these positions fully reflect his campaign promises. But truth be told, it’s more complex than that. Politicians promise all kinds of things on the campaign trail. In Biden’s case, the prevailing wisdom was that the 78-year-old president, who had already been in politics for 50 years, was merely trying to win over Bernie Sanders supporters, who were a significant factor in Clinton’s 2016 loss. Few believed he would actually implement those progressive policies if elected.
But three months into his presidency, Biden doesn’t look like he made those promises under duress. He wants to leave behind a legacy like FDR or LBJ of a move toward Western European–style social democracy. He’s no longer young, and it’s unclear if he’ll run for a second term, which frees him from the electoral considerations that hamper most first-term presidents.
But more than that, Biden is taking a political gamble that has a good chance of paying off big time. Unlike Obama or Clinton, Biden, who was born to a family of blue-collar workers in Pennsylvania, is trying to sell his climate policies with arguments designed to appeal specifically to that demographic — Trump’s base.
“There is no reason the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing,” Biden said in one of the highlights of his speech.
Another line of argument directed at blue collar workers, most of whom now vote Republican, related to the economic inequalities accentuated by the pandemic.
“Trickle-down [economics] has never worked,” he said. As an example he cited the billionaires whose fortunes skyrocketed during the pandemic even as millions of ordinary Americans lost their jobs. That’s also how he explained the need for a $15 per hour minimum wage. Again, all these proposals enjoy very little support among Republican senators. But it’s safe to assume it has some, albeit not broad support among the Republican base.
Will Biden be able to bring public pressure to bear on enough senators to pass legislation that until recently sounded like Bernie Sanders slogans? Or will the astronomical cost of his proposals intimidate lawmakers and leave his proposals in the realm of fantasy? The answer will have a significant impact on the Democratic Party’s fortunes in the midterm elections of 2020 — and possibly the bottom line for many hard-pressed families.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 859)
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