In an era of so-called fake news and alternative facts, perhaps it is not surprising that the Trump administration’s recently released 2018 federal budget proposal seems grounded in an alternate reality. While the administration’s budget rhetoric triumphantly boasts support for working families, the actual proposed budget would eviscerate critical protections and programs that are vital to families’ overall well-being. These protections include Medicaid; nutrition programs for women, infants, and children; supports for domestic violence victims; and more.
Particularly revealing is the budget’s unspoken vision of women and women’s lives in light of Ivanka Trump’s highly touted policymaking role leading the administration’s effort to promote women’s empowerment. As evidence of her commitment, the budget includes the administration’s version of a paid parental leave plan. Reportedly one of Ivanka Trump’s signature initiatives, the plan is meant to address the needs of working parents—and especially working mothers. However, it lays bare a fundamental disconnect between the administration’s rhetoric and what today’s women need to support their families, achieve economic stability, and chart their own futures.
Effective policy solutions must have the breadth, depth, and flexibility to be responsive to the needs of all women. Only then can women move forward together and achieve real progress. Solutions must:
- Be comprehensive, not piecemeal. Women do not live in a vacuum or issue silos; they face multiple, often interconnected issues. Therefore, solutions must be holistic and understood in connection with other proposals and policies to allow for the evaluation of different strategies’ combined impact.
- Recognize women’s diverse experiences, challenges, and needs. Women are not a monolith. Rather, they come to the table with unique perspectives across race, ethnicity, LGBTQ status, and economic level. Solutions must not pit any of these different groups against one another, and they also should not value any one group over another.
- Be rooted in equality. It is essential that policies and standards promote equity and maximize equal opportunity for women and men in different settings, such as the workplace or the health care system.
- Combat systemic barriers to change the status quo and reposition women so that they can direct their own lives. Women must have an equal opportunity to be full participants throughout society without being confined to narrow roles that align with the existing status quo. Too often, women are disadvantaged by entrenched practices that are framed as the preferred measures of success. For example, some employers favor workers who have a more traditional, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work schedule over workers who need to work nontraditional hours to accommodate childcare pickups. Challenging these systemic barriers is critical to better positioning women in the workforce and giving them the power to determine their own futures. Respect for women’s autonomy and valuing all women’s contributions are essential to creating productive workplaces and a productive society.
Using these measures, it is clear that the Trump plan is out of touch. Indeed, Trump’s paid parental leave plan falls woefully short of the comprehensive changes women need to meet their everyday challenges and move their lives forward.
- It leaves too many women out. The proposal would provide six weeks of paid leave to new birth or adoptive parents to care for a newborn or newly adopted child. But by only offering parental leave, the plan excludes the vast majority of women—and men—who need leave for caregiving purposes. Approximately 75 percent of workers who currently take unpaid leave for family or medical leave purposes do so for nonparental reasons, such as family caregiving or personal medical needs. Creating a leave benefit that prefers certain caregivers over others sends the wrong message. It creates a caregiver hierarchy that makes some seem more important than others, rather than promoting equitable solutions that work for all.
- It includes inadequate income supports that risk exacerbating family economic stability. States would administer the plan through their unemployment insurance (UI) systems, with parental leave-takers receiving a portion of their regular wages during the six-week period. Although the exact wage replacement is unclear, UI recipients currently receive on average approximately one-third of their current wages. The actual income support made available under the plan could be too low to be affordable for families, particularly if states are allowed to follow existing UI wage replacement rates. This is especially true for women—particularly women of color—who disproportionately work in low-wage jobs. African American women and Latinas, who are more likely to be single heads of household than their white or Asian American counterparts, could be hardest hit by inadequate wage replacement levels. Moreover, when combined with the broader cuts proposed in the budget—including cuts to Medicaid, nutrition assistance, women’s health care services, job training, housing assistance for people with disabilities, student loans, and more—the plan may seriously deepen the financial pressures that families face.
- It strains states’ limited resources. States would primarily bear the proposed funding—approximately $19 billion over 10 years. The plan calls for states to cover nearly two-thirds of the cost, an estimated $13 billion, and identify a source for the funding, presumably from mechanisms such as raising taxes or cutting other programs. Such cuts could undermine other critical programs that all women and families sorely need.
- It underfunds its leave program, which jeopardizes income supports and overburdens the UI infrastructure. In addition to the costs that states would cover, the plan projects that $6 billion of its total cost will come from UI program integrity measures, such as efforts to reduce program fraud and waste, and from re-employment efforts to help move workers off UI and back in the workforce. But neither of these mechanisms would provide actual funding for paid parental leave. Rather, the assumption is that they will generate cost savings totaling $6 billion to help offset the overall projected cost. The result is that the plan lacks a reliable, consistent funding stream, which could lead to serious underfunding of the proposed paid leave program on top of an already fragile UI system. The lack of clarity around the number of parents the plan is intended to cover only adds to the potential gaps in available support. These weaknesses effectively set the Trump plan up to fail. And the precarious nature of the funding would create unpredictability for families at a time when they could least afford it and should instead be focused on planning and securing care.
- It lacks protections against adverse employer actions. Trump’s plan says nothing about protecting parental leave-takers from adverse actions or discrimination. Employers can discourage their workers from taking leave, coerce them into not taking it, or retaliate against them if they do. Employees can also be excluded from opportunities because of assumptions that caregiving conflicts will interfere with work. Women are often disproportionately targeted for these types of actions because of long-standing biases and stereotypes about their work commitment and work ethic, yet the Trump plan proposes no enforcement mechanism to which workers can turn for help.
- It lacks investments to bolster women’s employment outcomes or economic security. The plan includes no new investments that could improve women’s employment outcomes or access to UI overall. This is particularly problematic for many women of color, who often experience longer periods of unemployment and need access to better-paying jobs.
- It does not promote much-needed workplace culture change. The plan’s limited scope and uneven funding falls short of being a stable, comprehensive program that could help promote workplace attitudes that respect the wide range of care needs. A comprehensive policy that provides support to all employees with caregiving needs would avoid the preferential aspects of the Trump plan and help foster a workplace environment where caregiving support is viewed not as special perk but rather as a necessary practice for all workers. Normalizing the need for paid family and medical leave across the entire workforce would help shift the culture of the workplace away from outdated views of caregiving as solely women’s responsibility.
The Trump administration’s paid parental leave plan is underinclusive, underresourced, and unresponsive to the real-world challenges that many women struggle to navigate every day. Far from empowering women, the plan’s weaknesses reveal a lack of understanding about how to craft workable solutions that respond to the needs of all women, instead of just a preferred few. Moreover, the plan exhibits little recognition of the broader systemic changes needed to remove barriers to equality and create a level playing field for all. And these changes are essential to women’s progress.
Indeed, access to comprehensive paid family and medical leave is critical for families. Both women and men need reliable, comprehensive options to ensure that not only are their families cared for but also that they do not fall into financial ruin. To be effective, such leave options must be available, affordable, and actually work for families. Unfortunately, the Trump plan does not meet these standards.
Jocelyn Frye is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.