Presidential candidate Donald Trump recently released his plan to reform policies related to childcare and maternity leave in an effort to aid working families. The effort is welcome, even if his policy proposal isn't perfect.
Trump proposes to guarantee all American women six weeks of paid maternity leave at half-salary, funded through unemployment insurance. This entitlement would only be offered to women whose employers don't currently offer a paid family leave benefit. The sentiment behind this proposal is admirable: We all want new moms to be able to spend time with their babies, if they choose. But this policy would come with significant downsides.
Fiscal conservatives are criticizing the plan, predictably focusing on the budgetary impact. "How much will this cost?" they ask, and "How will we pay for this?" While concerns about the budget are important, this money-focused critique of government-guaranteed maternity leave is not likely to persuade anyone outside of conservative circles. After all, we live in a large country with a nearly $4 trillion national government budget. Shouldn't we make families a priority? This framework pits people against money, and it is an unfavorable battlefield for conservatives.
This is the conflict at work in nearly every debate over social spending. Aren't outlays for education, health care, and now maternity leave more important than spending billions on bullets and bombs? Constitutional conservatives might point out that social programs do not have the constitutional mandate that military spending does, but this argument is likely to fall on deaf ears outside of Tea Party rallies.
Americans who believe that government maternity leave programs would improve their lives and help people in need are focused on just that: How would this affect people like me? The national budget and the Constitution are at best secondary considerations.
Least importantly, some election-minded conservatives might be wary of entering a bidding war with Hillary Clinton when it comes to paid maternity leave. Campaigning to become the first female president, Clinton has put family policy at the center of her agenda and hopes it will appeal to women voters. While Trump wants to ensure all women have access to six weeks of half-paid leave, Clinton can top that: She proposes twelve weeks of leave, and at a higher percentage of pay! Never enter a social spending bidding war with Democrats—you just can't win!
Instead, this issue presents an opportunity for conservatives to explain the tradeoffs that come with government entitlement programs and explain how the real problem with government leave programs is that they won't actually improve Americans' lives. In fact, they could backfire on the very women they are intended to help.
A government takeover of maternity leave – whether it's a mandate on employers or an entitlement program – would limit women's opportunities and our freedoms. The best argument against government maternity leave is that it would come with serious downsides for women's lives. And when women hear about an alternative, free-market solution, they prefer it to one-size-fits-all mandates.
In the case of maternity leave mandates, often proposed by Democrats, the result would be clear: If you force all employers to offer paid leave, some employers will be less likely to hire and promote women, as this requirement raises the cost of employing women. Mandates limit the flexibility of women to negotiate individualized compensation plans with their employers (and the majority of employers offer some form of paid leave benefits without a government mandate).
Trump's proposal to use unemployment insurance to fund maternity leave is much less intrusive than the plans offered by Democrats. Even so, it represents a costly, government-centric solution to a problem that would be better solved by the private sector, where women are free to find the work-life balance that best suits their preferences, their family's needs, and their budget.
Another alternative to one-size-fits-all government intervention would be to allow families to save tax-free for a family leave period. This type of savings account, called a "Personal Care Account" (PCA) is more popular with the public than government meddling in maternity leave.
When the Independent Women's Forum commissioned a message experiment, they found that, initially, 84 percent of Americans would support PCAs, compared to 74 percent support for paid leave mandates. When participants learned about the downside of leave mandates, support for PCAs increased 9 points over mandates.
It's fair to criticize government attempts to takeover maternity leave by pointing out the budget impact. It's also good to remind our fellow Americans than the government does not have a constitutional role here. But if we truly want to change the hearts and minds of our compatriots, we should demonstrate how the real result on Americans' lives will be less opportunity and less freedom and flexibility. That means it could harm women, rather than help them.