America is so polarized we can’t even come together on popular ideas like paid family leave

Image: Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini
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“I’m the sole provider for my kids and have to work all the time to make ends meet, so I don’t get a lot of time with them, even holidays or birthdays.” — Ellissa, Missouri

Though Ellissa’s story is unfortunately all too common, the tide on work-family policy seems to be turning. Polls show a majority of Americans consistently favor equal pay, childcare, and paid leave policies across party, class, racial, and ethnic lines. Among researchers, there’s also persuasive evidence that paid leave policies boost employee satisfaction and productivity. In sum: Paid leave seems like the ideal opportunity for trans-partisanship.

And yet, discord abounds among politicians on these issues, and a mere 12% of private sector workers receive paid leave. Pundits and advocates still question where to find common ground. So why aren’t moderates staking out common ground when it comes to paid leave?

Since support for paid leave is practically unanimous—at least among the American public—different questions bear further scrutiny. Primarily, what obstacles remain to championing paid leave? And why is there a division between the unanimity of the American public and the discord seen within legislatures? The answer may lie in the policy framing and institutional challenges within the American political system itself.

Setting policy aside, passing paid leave may be a question of framing. In order to elevate the debate on family-friendly policies—from paid leave to a living wage—politicians may need to market them as the bedrock of economic stability and opportunity across a broad range of constituencies. Lessons from state and local government may be transferable to the federal level, where paid leave could be elevated from an abstract issue to one at the core of family well-being. Such was the case in Connecticut, where paid leave was passed after being framed as an issue cutting across age, gender, race, party, and class. Some attribute policy reform to the breadth and depth of political engagement in Connecticut. And supporters of paid leave engaged with Connecticut residents over a sustained period of time to address their concerns and debunk opposition claims.

However, even if paid leave is properly reframed, political roadblocks could still impede the success of policy reform on the issue. In other words, a failure to pass paid leave may be proof of a stagnating political system—one in which politicians are not responsive to their constituencies, and/or one in which a vocal minority can stall policy-making. For example, though many Democrats have already marketed leave as an economic-opportunity issue (senator Kirsten Gillibrand, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, senator Bernie Sanders), Republicans are more reticent to endorse anything beyond changes to the tax code and using overtime hours towards paid time off. This lack of action may be the result of two forces. On the one hand, it may be less politically dangerous to do nothing than to try and fail; the danger posed by a small but vocal minority may impede any future expansion of government services. On the other hand, finding common ground among those who don’t believe that government can (or should) solve social problems is nearly impossible.

If a government-led solution is stalled by a powerful minority, we must look to reforming institutional structures that allow democracy to function at its best and respond to constituent demands. Minimizing the effects of factors that distort democratic political processes—weak ethics and campaign finance laws, too many veto points, gerrymandering and residential segregation, among others—might be the key to meeting constituent needs and finding common ground on paid leave.

In light of this, prolonged civic education and engagement are paramount to reframing discussions around both paid leave and political reform. Until then, deliberate engagement with state and local ballot initiatives is a good place to start and build community support for national policy reform.