In the midst of some of the most divided, rancorous politics America has ever seen, there is one area of intriguing bipartisan agreement: paid family leave. What in the past has been decried by the Right as socialism and by the Left as unnecessary has, in the past few years, become an unexpected rallying point for lawmakers and culture leaders from opposite ends of the political spectrum. The issue has generated enough momentum that this just may be the year it becomes a reality.
This widespread interest in helping families is excellent news for Catholics, parents, and society as a whole. The reality is that people in America are not having babies—at least, not at the rate necessary to replace ourselves. The fertility rate in America has been declining for decades. The Centers for Disease Control reported that in 2018 (the most recent year with data), fewer babies were born than at any time since 1986. Even more alarming, fertility (the number of babies born per woman) reached its lowest recorded levels.
There are a number of possible reasons for this. The New York Times found that many young American adults wish they could have more children but cited finances as a significant barrier to that goal. Sixty-four percent of survey participants said that childcare was too expensive for them to afford another child, forty-four percent said that they couldn’t afford more children, and nearly forty percent specifically cited a lack of paid family leave.
There were certainly many other considerations. Over fifty percent of participants said that they wanted more time with the children they had, and over thirty percent said that they were too worried about world affairs or climate change to have more children. But the fact remains that the single largest concern for young adults in having more children—children they would very much like to have—is financial.
It may be tempting for people with large families to scoff a little at this point and say that surely people can make cuts to their budget and afford more children if that’s what they really want. Just don’t go out to eat, or buy fancy new iPhones.
This is where Catholics should consider just how toxic the cultural environment is for families, especially for parents who are trying to raise a family but are not part of a supportive community like the Catholic Church. Many young adults in America today do not even have their own parents to use as models. People face real challenges—cultural, geographic, financial, and emotional—to having large families, and even though those challenges do not equate to legitimate excuses, Catholics are bound by charity to acknowledge them.
The reality is that American culture is cunningly designed to disincentivize us from having children. Everything we see in the media and advertising tells us that the good life requires men and women both to have full-time careers. In many areas of the country, it is difficult to afford a house near decent schools on only one income. It would require people to adopt counter-cultural attitudes towards money, attitudes that take time to cultivate and are difficult to maintain without support. Beyond the financial elements, everything in our culture tells us that life is about self-actualization; it is about having a self-actualizing career, access to self-actualizing (and often expensive) leisure time, and self-actualizing sexual partnerships. This false gospel of self permeates every area of our culture—even faithful Catholics are probably often surprised to find it influencing their own lives and decisions.
Then there is the geographic factor: families are more spread out than ever before, leaving many new parents without a support system. This may be a factor in rising rates of post-partum depression (PPD), a serious medical problem that requires intervention. I have personal experience with the challenges of living far away from family and coping with PPD. It can bury families, especially mothers, in isolation and despair. Now, add financial stress to this (which I also experienced after the birth of our first child), and it can be undersandable why people might choose not to have more children.
Paid family leave addresses the financial aspect by offering new parents a block of time off—four to six weeks, in most proposals—to stay home, bond with their child, and establish a new routine before returning to work. Currently, around 17 percent of U.S. employers offer some form of paid leave, and a handful of states have paid leave programs. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the industrialized world; aside from the United States, Papua New Guinea, and a few small South Pacific island nations, every other country belonging to the U.N. offers some form of paid family leave.
Since 1993, the U.S. has offered unpaid leave, guaranteeing workers up to 12 weeks of time off to care for sick relatives or new children without compromising their jobs. Unfortunately, there are very few Americans who can afford to take even a month off without pay, so for most workers, this is not particularly helpful.
Of course, the natural question in response to paid family leave plans is: how will we pay for it?
There are several proposals on the table that offer different options. One bill sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio is a self-financing, budget-neutral plan that allows parents to draw on their future retirement benefits to take time off for a new child. The plan is entirely voluntary. The advantage here is that the plan would not require a tax hike; the disadvantage is that parents who have more children will probably end up deferring retirement because they will need to work longer in order to replace the funds they withdrew.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has proposed a plan that functions much like Social Security, requiring employers and employees to contribute 0.2 percent of wages to a fund for paid leave, which could be used to care for sick relatives or for family leave. The objection here for many conservatives is that the plan requires higher taxes.
One plan that manages to sidestep the pitfalls of both of these proposals is the Cassidy-Sinema plan, co-sponsored by Republican Senator Bill Cassidy and Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema. This entirely elective plan lets parents borrow up to $5,000 from their child tax credits (which, after the 2017 tax code changes, amount to $2,000 per child per year), and to “pay” the loan back by receiving a reduced tax credit of $1,500 for the new child for ten years. This plan, besides having the advantage of bipartisanship, does not raise taxes and does not compromise parents’ retirement plans; instead, it allows parents to choose to access the existing child tax benefit right after birth when the extra money could be used to fund a parental leave.
These are examples of the kinds of plans under consideration. Despite their various strengths and weaknesses, they have one thing in common: they recognize that having children is a socially and culturally valuable decision, and that the government can do a better job at encouraging people do it.
There is a strong precedent of the Catholic Church urging governments to pass family-friendly policies. Look, for example, at this quote from the 2014 Synod on the Family:
Families often feel abandoned due to a lack of interest and attention on the part of institutions. The negative impact on the social order is clear, as seen in the demographic crisis, in the difficulty of raising children, in a hesitancy to welcome new life, in a tendency to see older persons as a burden, and in an increase of emotional problems and outbreaks of violence. The State has the responsibility to pass laws and create work to ensure the future of young people and help them realize their plan of forming a family.
The family is the particular target of the devil. As Pope Francis has said, “Families are the domestic Church, where Jesus grows; he grows in the love of spouses, [and] he grows in the lives of children. That is why the enemy so often attacks the family.” Right now, the devil has a whole arsenal of cultural weapons to level against families: an ideology of self-actualization, increasing isolation from extended family and close community, mounting mental health challenges, and an economy that assumes there are two full-time workers in each household. So when Catholics have a chance to support a government policy that bolsters and encourages families, we should take it.
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