2020 elections

Are Any of the Paid Family Leave Plans Actually Any Good?

Kirsten Gillibrand.
Kirsten Gillibrand. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc./Getty Images

It’s an oft-cited truth that the United States is the only industrialized country in the world that does not guarantee its residents paid family leave — a reality that forces people to choose between economic security and caring for a child or sick family member, and is partly to blame for everything from low fertility rates to the gender pay gap. But with Republicans warming up to the prospect, and 2020 candidates speaking out about the plans they support, it’s quickly becoming a top legislative priority this year. Perhaps, this signals, Americans are ready to join the rest of the developed world.

This year, NPR reports that nearly two dozen states will consider paid leave plans, and multiple lawmakers have proposed programs at the federal level — but as is the case with health care, taxes, and child care, not all plans are created equal. Below, a guide to the three main pieces of federal legislation, and what experts have to say about them.

The Cradle Act

Sponsors: Senators Joni Ernst and Mike Lee

What it proposes: The Cradle Act, which is short for the Child Rearing and Development Leave Empowerment Act, is nearly identical to a failed Republican bill proposed by Marco Rubio last year. (He proposed it again this year as the “New Parents Act,” but more on that later.) In short, this Republican legislation would give parents the option to use some of their Social Security benefits after a birth or an adoption to take anywhere from one to three months of paid leave; however, the exchange isn’t 1:1. If you take one month of paid leave after having a new baby, you delay your retirement by two months; if you take two months, you delay it by four.

What critics say: Cindy Hounsell, president of the nonprofit Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, told Barron’s that it “is essentially an unpaid leave bill since you are using retirement money to pay for unpaid caregiving.” Furthermore, Social Security is expected to run out of money to pay workers their benefits as early as 2035, so critics don’t find it wise to burden a system that’s already not doing so well.

“It’s a terrible idea,” Olivia Mitchell, a professor of business economics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, told Barron’s.

New Parents Act

Sponsors: Senator Mitt Romney joining Senator Marco Rubio

What it proposes: This act is nearly identical to the Cradle Act — in fact, the aforementioned law was based on last year’s New Parents Act. This year’s version, proposed on March 27, would give parents the option to dip into their Social Security to take a paid leave of one to three months. The legislation would also permit parents to use their Social Security funds to pay for child care while working either part- or full-time.

“Our economic policies have left young, working families behind at a time when our marriage and childbirth rates are falling,” Rubio said in a statement. “It is time to realign our economic policies in support of American families.”

What critics say: Much of the criticism is the same as that for the Cradle Act. While conservatives praise the legislation for not raising taxes, paid family leave advocates are opposed to the plan.


Sponsors: Representative Rosa DeLauro and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

What it proposes: DeLauro and Gillibrand first proposed this law in 2013; it would give up to 12 weeks of partial income to not only new parents, but also those with sick family members or those who are themselves sick. This, unlike the previous two proposals, wouldn’t force employees to dip into their Social Security benefits — instead, employees and employers would make small payments that would, on average, be no more than $2 a week for a typical worker. Therefore, this proposal would lead to the creation of a trust fund within the Social Security Administration.

“We should not have to sacrifice our job and risk our future to do the right thing for our family,” Senator Gillibrand said in a statement. “Choosing between your loved ones and your career and your future is a choice no one should have to make.”

What critics say: This act has gained the support of most Democratic presidential candidates — Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris — and is favored by longtime advocates. Ellen Bravo of Family Values at Work told the Cut last month that it’s the plan she hopes will pass — a message echoed by the president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, Debra Ness.

“The FAMILY Act, modeled on successful state programs, is the only paid leave proposal before Congress that is structured to address the needs of working people,” she said in a statement.

Are Any of the Paid Family Leave Plans Actually Any Good?