Editorial: Marco Rubio’s parental leave plan would rob Peter to pay for Peter Jr.

Marco Rubio, Susan Collins
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., left, next to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, right, on March 21.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

It’s embarrassing and shameful that the U.S. remains the only industrialized nation that does not guarantee paid leave for new parents. It’s also counterproductive. Study after study shows widespread benefits for families and society when new parents have adequate time to bond with their babies.

Federal law guarantees the time off for those who choose to take it, but not replacement pay — and many workers simply can’t afford the loss of income. Democrats have been pushing to change that in recent years, but with little progress in the Republican-controlled Congress despite bipartisan support for paid family leave among voters. So it’s encouraging, at first glance, to finally see interest from the other side of the aisle. It’s disappointing, however, that it has taken the form of Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) Economic Security for New Parents Act, a gimmicky proposal that gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

Rubio’s bill, based on a proposal by the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, would allow working parents around the country to take partially paid parental leave when they have or adopt a child. But to do so, they would agree to stick their future selves with the bill by tapping their Social Security benefits. Under the plan, a parent would receive two months of paid parental leave in return for a three- to six-month delay in receiving Social Security benefits.

If Congress is going to push parental leave — and it should — it should do it right.

What parent wouldn’t agree to such a Faustian bargain if it would ensure their children a strong start in life? Experts say that parental bonding is crucial for the healthy development of a baby’s body and mind during the first six months of life. And it would be perfectly understandable if new parents happily traded the economic security of their hypothetical older selves (who knows what could happen in the next 20 or 30 years?) for the certainty of adequate baby bonding time.

We get that Republicans are reluctant to enhance entitlements, add to the federal deficit or ask workers to shell out more money for retirement, but even if we’re talking about just a few months of retirement income, it is dangerous idea to tap the the buy-now, pay-later model that has trapped so many Americans in financial holes they can’t escape.

Most Americans are already shockingly ill-prepared for retirement and many face impoverishment in their later years even with Social Security benefits. (Unless Congress improves the program’s finances, benefits will have to be cut sharply in about 16 years.) Turning the Social Security Trust Fund into the Bank of Parental Leave won’t improve its fiscal health.We should be looking at policies to shore up the system and encourage retirement savings — not cooking up convoluted borrowing schemes that will only make retirement less achievable.

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California already know what works. More than 15 years ago, the state adopted a family leave policy administered through the State Disability Insurance program and funded by mandatory employee payroll deductions (currently the state disability deduction is 1% of taxable income) that allows most workers to take up to six weeks of partially paid leave to care for a newborn or a seriously sick family member. Everyone contributes, even if they don’t have children or sick family members, because there’s a societal payoff.

Studies show that paid parental leave policies produce healthier babies who grow up to be well-adjusted adults. It’s also good for workers. Women who are eligible for paid parental leave are more likely to stay in the workforce if they have access to a paid leave program, and that affects their future earning potential. There’s also a benefit to companies. A study of California’s program found that most employers surveyed reported that the addition of paid family leave improved employee productivity, morale and retention, as well as better profitability.

Making sure that all new parents can afford to take the time off to care for their children shouldn’t come at the cost of putting off one’s retirement for months or even years. If Congress is going to push parental leave — and it should — it should do it right, California style.

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