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Family Leave and the Federal Government

Senators Ernst and Lee pitch the Republican proposal: Tap into Social Security.

Brian Mark Weber · Mar. 22, 2019

For decades, conservative politicians have talked a good game about limiting the scope and power of the federal government, reducing entitlements, and fostering a sense of self-reliance. Yet they’ve offered little to back up the political rhetoric and, consequently, the Left has run the table on a range of issues by giving the people feel-good government programs.

The result of playing defense has put Republican at a crossroads: either stand up for conservative principles and risk alienating a public conditioned to government hand-holding, or join with “progressives” by offering compromise solutions that amount to taking one step forward and two steps back for constitutional government.

This dilemma has come to the forefront on another popular issue: paid family leave. Who doesn’t want a young couple starting a family to have the support they need to keep their jobs and pay their bills? Until now, Democrats owned this issue, but now some notable conservative Republicans are on board with a government solution disguised in small-government, constitutional language.

To be fair, it’s about time that members of the GOP are at least actively engaged in addressing an issue that, like it or not, is popular with the general public.

One plan being considered is that of Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) called the Child Rearing and Development Leave Empowerment (CRADLE) Act. Alexandra DeSanctis explains at National Review that the plan “would amend the Social Security Act to allow parents to take up to three months off from work by drawing on their retirement benefits early in exchange for delaying their benefits after retiring.”

Sounds good on the surface. There’s no new government entitlement (conservative voters appeased) and new families are not left to fend for themselves (moderate voters reassured.) But as with any solution, it’s complicated, and there are concerns on both the Left and the Right about this program.

Naturally, leftists prefer an expanded, welfare-style program outside of Social Security that would broaden government power and necessitate greater public funding. Everything on the Left is a “right” (paid for by someone else, of course) and every situation needs government intervention.

On the Right, there are concerns that the very concept of tapping into a government social program for family-leave benefits sets a bad precedent that opens the door for an expanded government role in the future, conditions citizens to see government as the solution to their problems, and fails to address key questions about the long-term solvency of Social Security itself.

Other critics claim that CRADLE would draw on the taxes of current workers, not their own future benefits, and that the program encourages dependency rather than individual fiscal responsibility.

Still others on the Right, such as Ben Domenech of The Federalist, encourage Republicans including President Donald Trump to support such compromise solutions by asserting they would be “embracing an idea at the heart of his 2016 success: that he is the one Republican willing to break with party norms to help working- and middle-class Americans.”

On the political surface, this is true. Nationally, Republicans (Ronald Reagan and Trump aside) have routinely failed to connect with people and to effectively market their ideas. In this sense, the party must attract a broader base of support in order to remain viable in the 21st century. At the same time, conservatives need to realize that shouting from the rooftops that “we care too!” isn’t the best way to tackle democratic socialism or to promote individual responsibility.

One of the clear benefits of the Ernst-Lee plan is that families who could not afford benefits or who worked for small businesses that did not offer benefits would now have a safety net to fall into. The initiative would also help small business owners from having to foot the bill of a new government mandated program — at least in terms of having to pay someone for not working; the business still loses the employee’s time. But one can make the easy argument that anyone drawing on a government check is benefitting from that program. That’s how leftists get everyone on board.

George Leef writes at Forbes, “Just about everyone knows that Social Security is at best financially precarious if not utterly unsustainable, and yet we are talking about adding a new benefit? It will be that much harder in the future to make the radical changes needed to save Social Security (or better yet, abolish it) if Americans have gotten used to thinking that it’s a source of money for the costs of babies.”

Ultimately, funding family leave policies within the framework of Social Security is probably a better option than forcing employers by law to provide family leave, but in either case we have to be wary of looking to government as the solution to our challenges. We must address real-world problems with concrete solutions, but do so in a way that retains the principles of Liberty, promotes individual responsibility, and holds the government to its constitutional limitations.

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