The conservative movement that has worked for a half century to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade has finally succeeded: As of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case in June, abortion is no longer a constitutional right guaranteed across the country.
That victory almost immediately prompted the same question across a number of media outlets: Where does the anti-abortion movement go next? If banning abortion is about protecting babies, as those activists say it is, might Republicans coalesce behind passing policies that support pregnant people, young children and families?
And, in fact, a tiny smattering of Republicans have responded by putting forward ideas for providing paid family leave when children are born and cash payments to families as they grow up. The trouble, though, is in the details. None of these plans would offer robust or comprehensive paid family leave benefits, and they would all ask parents who make use of them to give something else up in return. Republicans’ proposals for the Child Tax Credit all include work requirements that would exclude the poorest and most vulnerable. Even with those caveats, there is little sign that the party as a whole is ready to act on either priority anytime soon.
The paid leave proposal currently getting the most attention comes from Senator Marco Rubio. It’s very similar to a plan Senators Joni Ernst and Mike Lee put forward in 2019. Rubio’s proposal would allow new parents to borrow up to three months of their future Social Security benefits to cover the cost of parental leave. To make the plan cost neutral, it requires those parents to later pay the money back by either having their payments reduced or by working longer. If they died before they reached retirement, their estates would have to pay the money back. It would only apply to parents who have at least two years of prior work history—excluding full-time stay-at-home parents, as well as young ones who have just started working—and wouldn’t come with any job protection, which means anyone who isn’t covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act for unpaid leave would be at risk of getting fired if they used the benefit to take time off from work. Only 59 percent of the workforce is covered by the FMLA.
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According to the Urban Institute, taking one 12-week leave would cost someone about 3 percent of their future Social Security payments or force them to put off retirement by 25 weeks. Taking more than one leave for any additional children will compound the costs.
The amount of money people could expect would also be low, only covering about half of the earnings of typical new parents. It wouldn’t “allow you to continue to pay your bills in most cases,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow at New America’s Better Life Lab. This facet of the plan could also end up reinforcing traditional gender roles by discouraging fathers from taking leave. When benefits are too low to live on, women, who more frequently interrupt their work to take care of family, are more likely to be the ones who take it, while fathers simply go without and miss out on an important bonding time.
The benefits are also only for the arrival of a new child, excluding paid leave for someone’s own serious illness or disability or that of a family member. But three-quarters of people who currently claim unpaid FMLA leave do it for reasons other than caring for a newborn.
Paid leave advocates appreciate having Republicans putting forward ideas. “It demonstrates that there is a recognized need for paid family and medical leave across the aisle,” Shabo said. But they note that this plan doesn’t create a new benefit. It simply asks parents to borrow against their future selves. That’s a particular hardship for the people who are most likely to need this benefit: low-income workers who are least likely to get paid leave at work, as well as women who are more likely to take it, both of whom disproportionately rely on Social Security payments in old age but are already likely to have lower benefits.
It would also place a burden on a program that wasn’t created for this purpose. “To add a new program without any new revenue or structure of the Social Security Administration is pulling from one necessary program in order to create another one that won’t be effective,” Shabo said.
A similar idea came from Senators Bill Cassidy and Kyrsten Sinema. Their bill would send $5,000 in advance Child Tax Credit payments to new parents, which parents would then pay back over the next 10 years by reducing their credit by $500 every year. But the early years of a child’s life are when a family’s expenses are likely to be highest, stretching to cover child care, education, clothes, and food, making it hard to take on the extra burden of paying back a loan.
These ideas, Shabo argued, are “really like payday loans for new parents.”
When he was president, Donald Trump put forward a different idea for paid family leave. His proposal, which he talked about on the campaign trail and included in his budget every year, although it was never introduced as actual legislation, would have offered six weeks of benefits through the unemployment insurance system. It also came with no extra money to create the benefits or help states administer them, and instead simply added a new plank on top of an already very creaky structure.
Unemployment insurance is run by each state and territory, so each has its own rules on eligibility and payment rates—from as little as $235 a week in Mississippi to $974 in Massachusetts. Many programs end up excluding low-wage workers, and Black workers are especially unlikely to get benefits. States would have to decide to take up the new benefit, and many could refuse, the same way they have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The program also requires beneficiaries to be available to work, but “the whole point of paid leave is you’re temporarily unavailable,” Shabo noted.
With enough resources and legislative changes to the unemployment insurance system, it could be possible to create a new benefit that works, Shabo said, although it was still only proposed for new parents and for an extremely short period of leave. But that’s not what Trump put forward. And as Jocelyn Frye, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, noted, “it did not even garner support amongst Republicans.”
Some Republicans have continued to bring up the idea of the Working Families Flexibility Act, which was first introduced in 1995 and passed by House Republicans in 2017. Senator Lee and Representative Mary Miller introduced it again in early 2021. It would allow employers to give workers comp time when they work overtime instead of extra pay, as is currently required by law. But there’s no guarantee someone would be able to bank enough overtime to take leave, and employers could also deny an employee’s request to use the comp time if they claimed that it “unduly disrupts the operations of the employer” or if the request didn’t come “within a reasonable period.” Employers could also pressure employees into taking comp time instead of overtime pay and would face less disincentive to stretch the workweek longer and longer. The proposal required workers to plan ahead for needing leave, despite the fact that many will find themselves in that situation on an emergency basis. It’s “the same approach of asking people to give up a set of rights in order to get a set of protections,” Frye said.
Frye and Shabo both noted that, though we’ve heard more chatter from Republicans about paid leave, the Dobbs decision has not led to innovative policy ideas on the Republican side. “What I find discouraging about the conversation is it’s a conversation that’s somewhat static,” Frye said. “These are the same ideas that have been out there.”
The Democratic plan for paid leave, to create a social insurance program that would collect a modest tax on employees and employers to fund 12 weeks of paid time off with job protection for employees who have new babies, serious illnesses, and disabilities, is an approach that’s been tested and proven effective. It’s not just what’s in place in 12 states and D.C., but also in the vast majority of other countries with paid leave programs. “We keep looking for alternatives when we’re staring right at programs that are effective and work,” Frye said. “Why are we being distracted by alternatives that have a whole bunch of flaws and won’t actually meet the need?”
A few Republicans have also, in recent years, shown interest in sending more direct cash benefits to parents. In 2021, Senator Mitt Romney put forward a proposal that would replace the existing Child Tax Credit with a monthly check of $350 per month for children under 6, and $250 for children over 6, sent out by the Social Security Administration, phased out for higher-income families. The payments would have been offered to all families under the income threshold, even those who had little to no earnings, and therefore did away with the connection between whether parents worked and whether they could get the money.
Romney’s plan would pay for the extra benefits by eliminating a host of tax filing benefits, including the Head of Household status, the Child and Dependent Care Credit, and the federal deduction for state and local taxes, as well as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash assistance program that offers benefits to parents and non-parents alike. His plan also would reduce Earned Income Tax Credit benefits. One estimate said it would have cut child poverty by a third.
The proposal had its flaws. Some single parents of children over age 6 would have gotten less than before by having the Head of Household and Child and Dependent Care Credit done away with. But Shawn Fremstad, senior policy fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, thought “it was a good thing,” he said, and “it felt like progress.”
Romney’s plan got little traction with the rest of his party. Senators Rubio and Lee had already put out their own proposal as part of the negotiations over the Republicans’ 2017 tax cut package, when they had tried to include a doubling of the current Child Tax Credit. They were adamant that it would keep in place the exclusion for parents with little to no earnings, and they called Romney’s version “welfare.” Rubio recently included his version of the CTC expansion in his “Providing for Life” legislation package released in the wake of the Dobbs decision.
So Romney has now released an updated plan, cosponsored by Senators Richard Burr and Steven Daines, that walks some of his original proposal back. Instead of offering the payments to all low-income families, it would impose the work requirement his fellow conservatives have been seeking by only giving the full credit to families making at least $10,000 a year. That earnings test has to be met no matter the family’s makeup: whether a child is cared for by two married working parents, a single working parent, disabled parents, or grandparents. Families with no earnings would get nothing; after that, they would get a prorated amount as their income rose to $10,000. That significantly weakens how many children Romney’s plan would lift out of poverty, cutting it from 4.1 million to 2.6 million.
As in Romney’s initial proposal, the plan is paid for by altering the EITC and eliminating the Head of Household status and Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit. Those changes essentially force low-income people, particularly single parents who benefit from the Head of Household status, to pay for the new credit, and they would leave many more children in poverty. So on net, the proposal would lift just 1.3 million above the poverty line. “The worst thing about it are the offsets,” said Chuck Marr, vice president for federal tax policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Romney is “really asking low-income people, especially single moms who make between $15,000 and $40,000, to pay for it.” About 10 million children whose families make less than $50,000 would actually be worse off. At the same time, Romney would make permanent a high phase-out rate for the wealthiest families, allowing more of them to claim the credits than under current law. It also denies the credit to children of undocumented immigrants or who are undocumented immigrants themselves.
“It was pretty disappointing,” Fremstad said. “Once you add the earnings test, it just changes the dynamic completely.” The tradeoffs of the first version start to look less worthwhile.
Romney’s proposal offers something else to conservatives: It would send payments to “unborn children,” giving a pregnant person $700 a month in the last four months of pregnancy. That provision essentially incorporates a 2019 standalone proposal from Daines, who has introduced strict abortion restrictions in the Senate and called abortion “taking the life of a human being,” to send Child Tax Credit payments to “unborn children.”
While offering support to pregnant people may be something progressive can get behind, advocates caution that this isn’t the way to do it. “This is fetal personhood, 100 percent,” Fremstad said. Fremstad and others argue that granting benefits reserved for actual children who have been born to fetuses furthers the fetal personhood movement, which seeks to grant fetuses the same rights and legal protections as people and would not just outlaw all abortion and prioritize a fetus’s rights over the pregnant person’s, but also potentially jeopardize in vitro fertilization and some forms of contraception. While there’s an argument to be made that pregnant people need cash benefits, “it’s got to be very clear that it’s a benefit for pregnant women based on their self,” Fremstad said.
Marr, of the CBPP, insists that it’s “good to see Republicans engage” on expanding the Child Tax Credit. Still, the proposals made so far have clear drawbacks that would leave many families worse off, particularly when compared to the payments that went out last year under the American Rescue Plan. Those payments, of up to $300 a month for young children and $250 for older ones, were sent to all parents under the income cap, even without earnings, and immediately reduced child poverty from 15.8 percent to 11.9 percent.
Even with a handful of Republicans putting forward some policy ideas after Dobbs, there are few signs that the rest of the party will take urgent action on these issues anytime soon. “We have been dealing with anti-choice restrictions in states for a long time. Those states also have not been open to paid leave and these types of policies,” Frye noted. None of the states that have already or are likely to ban abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling provide paid family leave. None offer their own state-level Child Tax Credits. “Whether that will change, we will see,” Frye added. In Mississippi, the state that argued in favor of overturning Roe in front of the Supreme Court, Governor Tate Reeves promised a comprehensive process to “make Mississippi the safest and most supportive state in the country for mothers.” Instead, he briefly met and e-mailed with a funder of anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers; a pediatrician who e-mailed the governor’s staff recommending that the state extend postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to a year didn’t warrant a meeting. Reeves’s ideas include more funding for CPCs and adoption incentives.
Some Republicans have at least paid lip service to the idea that, now that the party has achieved its decades-long quest to overturn Roe, it should prove that the issue is about prioritizing babies and not just controlling women and trans and nonbinary people’s bodies. Senator Rick Scott, head of the Republican Senate campaign committee who is gunning for the White House, said the party has the responsibility to “do everything in our power to meet the needs of struggling women and their families so they can choose life.”
“It’s not just a matter of saying, ‘We are pro-life.’ It’s a matter, then, of promoting and allowing these people who are making very difficult decisions with their lives to make sure we can help individuals facing these tough decisions,” Senator Mike Rounds told The Washington Post. Senator Charles Grassley told Axios that the party has to “be more supportive of families and mothers,” while Senate minority whip John Thune said, “We’re going to have to step up and do more. And I think that people are prepared to do that.”
But plenty of other Republicans have thrown cold water on the idea. “I’m not sure government can fix that,” Senator John Cornyn told HuffPost when asked if the federal government now had to do more to help parents. Senator James Lankford retorted that there are already “trillion dollars in benefits” available.
And even if Republicans were to act immediately to implement comprehensive paid family leave and robust child allowance payments, it wouldn’t undo the harm of banning abortion. “You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to give you paid leave,’ and think that will somehow counter a loss of a fundamental right,” Frye said. “Even if there were a whole host of perfect policies created in the wake of that, it doesn’t mitigate that loss of your ability to control your body.”