Subsidize Motherhood, not Apple Pie


bernie hillary

Last night’s Democratic candidate debate was more elevated but less entertaining than the GOP debates. Everyone loves a clown and, although he gave it his best shot, Lincoln Chafee is just not in Donald Trump’s league as a buffoon. 

The question of paid family leave got a moment in the sun, with Bernie Sanders citing Denmark as his model and Hillary, ever the smart kid who does her debate prep, insisting that “we are not Denmark” before proceeding to recall her trials as the working mother of a sick infant and endorse everything Denmark does. With apple pie no longer debatable due to its high sugar content, this raises the question as to whether motherhood should be a political issue for 2016.

FT 13 12 11 parentalLeave

It should — because we need more mothers and raising babies ain’t ping pong as anyone who has tried knows. Since babies are pure positive externality, and apple pie promotes diabetes, let’s cut the sugar lobby out and subsidize mothers, not apple pie.

In 1993, during the reign of Clinton I, I worked in the Labor Department as we fought for and eventually passed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA guarantees at least 12 weeks maternity leave to new mothers in companies with 50 or more employees. Half of all states have supplemented the FMLA by lowering the firm-size threshold to as few as 10 employees (14 states) or allowing longer absences (7 states).

This is protected leave — time that an employer must accommodate unpaid absence. California, New Jersey and Washington have enacted paid leaveprograms. Three other states and the District of Columbia guarantee mothers paid maternity leave through disability Insurance provisions.

Compared with other modern countries,the US is pretty hostile to mothers, as Bernie Sanders pointed out. The rest of the world welcomes new babies by giving their mothers some paid time away from work. Only the US doesn’t.

Conservative economists have two worries about family leave programs — and one looks valid. Notice that the graph segments into countries that allow about a year off and those at allow two or more years. Most of the countries allowing more than 150 weeks leavesuffer from very low female labor participation rates. Women, like anyone else, will choose not to work if you pay them enough.

Some conservatives also worry that paid leave somehow undermines family formation. It’s an odd argument, since most conservative economists think that incentives matter and it is not clear how a public incentive to form a family would end up wrecking families — as our marriage tax deduction recognizes. Academic research into welfare support for mothers concludes pretty forcefully that it improves family formation by increasing both marriage and fertility, which are both declining in the US. Parental leave is also associated with increased divorce, although one can question whether public policy should attempt to hold a marriage together so weak that it dissolves in the face of maternal leave.

Bottom line: Americans can and should do more to support mothers. Where should our policy fit on the above chart? I’d say right around Denmark. 

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