Trump’s maternity leave plan is a joke on parents of all genders

Trump’s got plans for them.
Trump’s got plans for them.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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With the unveiling of his new child care plan, Donald Trump showed America how seriously he takes intelligence of women—the voters he is desperately trying to woo. Not very seriously at all.

Trump says he wants to close the gender pay gap and encourage more women to work. He plans to do that via a series of tax and corporate incentives that make child care more affordable. But the centerpiece of his plan for paid maternity leave calls for paying new mother to care for their newborns. But not new dads.

Denying fathers paid leave would likely perpetuate the discrimination that currently hobbles millions of mothers’ careers—and do little to boost wages and female labor participation.

“Policies that focus on women only reinforce the idea that it’s the woman’s job to take care of babies and raise children,” says Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. “These policies reinforce stereotypes of women to women themselves, as well as to their coworkers and the institutions that have an impact on their employment trajectory.”

Trump’s plan to treat women and men differently for their child care work solidifies that stereotype. It also perpetuates a 1950s idea that a father, but not a mother, should sacrifice time with his new baby to spend long hours on the job. That’s an outdated concept in an era when both parents work.

Imagine a young, middle-class family is about to have a baby, and is deciding how to share child care responsibilities. The husband brings in $40,000 a year, while the wife earns the typical 80% of what he makes (i.e. $32,000). Under Trump’s plan, new mothers–but not fathers–are eligible for six weeks of paid leave equal to the amount they’d receive under unemployment insurance. Set by each state, that rate is usually a fraction of their wage. The average benefit nationally is one-third of a worker’s average weekly wages, according to the National Employment Law Project.

All the diapers, doctor visits, onesies, and zillions of other infant accoutrements add up, making the cost of having a baby one of the biggest expenses a family takes on. And that’s on top of taking an income hit as one or both parents take time off work to care for the newborn. So maximizing income is going to be one of the biggest factors determining how the expectant parents share their time. Applying NELP’s national estimate for unemployment insurance to Trump’s plan, this is how the family’s finances would break down under various scenarios:

The incentives Trump’s plan creates are obvious: The most economical thing to do is for the mother to take six weeks of leave, and for the new dad to take none.

This perpetuates a feedback loop between household economics and gender stereotypes. Society’s assumption that child care is women’s work encourages companies to pass over women of childbearing age for hiring, training, and promotion. When couples have a baby, the gap in wages skews the economic incentives in favor of fathers working and mothers leaving the workforce. Leaving the workforce puts the mother even farther behind in her career, widening the pay gap further. These decisions ultimately lead moms, but not dads, to put their careers on the back burner–or simply give them up altogether.

It’s surprising that Trump, a self-professed business genius, would fail to grasp such basic economic incentives. It’s pretty simple: When the government values women’s child care labor more highly than men’s child care labor, it gives businesses no reason to treat men and women equally in the workplace. That, in turn, limits parents’ flexibility in balancing work with raising a family.

To Trump’s credit, his plan tries to make child care more affordable—making it easier for mothers to return to the workforce—through tax and corporate incentives. However, as Slate’s Michelle Goldberg notes, these perks mainly benefit upper-middle class families. The child care rebate of up to $1,200 that poor mothers are eligible for “is helpful but far too little to meaningfully offset the overall crushing cost of child care,” she writes.

There is a much more effective way to keep new mothers engaged in the workforce: Encourage men to take parental leave as well (as we’ve explored in 2014). A study in Sweden, which has pioneered “daddy leave,” found that a mother’s earnings rose an average of 7% (pdf, p.35) for each month of leave her husband took.

Trump wouldn’t have had to look to Sweden to notice this; California’s plan has also demonstrated the importance of giving fathers paid leave. New Jersey and Rhode Island have launched successful policies too; all of them feature parental leave—not just maternity leave.

Trump’s proposal to fund his flawed maternity leave pay is even more flawed. He wants to crack down on unemployment insurance fraud and use unemployment insurance reserves. First, the degree of fraud is too little to generate the money needed to fund Trump’s proposal, says NELP. Secondly, reserves are needed to pay benefits for future laid-off workers. Moreover, the slew of state family leave policies have already ironed out how to fund parental leave sustainably—through a small dedicated tax shared by workers and employers. The national plan spearheaded by Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York senator, funds its parental leave benefits in the same way that the state plans do.

Trump says Hillary Clinton ”has no child care plan” and “never will.” This is untrue. He also falsely describes her plan on his website (e.g. “Hillary Clinton would force businesses to pay for 12 weeks of fully-paid family leave at their expense,” which ignores that Clinton’s plan provides two-thirds of a parent’s current wages, and doesn’t tax businesses). Clinton began laying out her plan, which happens also to be grounded in sound economics and time-tested policy, at least a year ago.

Trump congratulates himself for putting the struggles of working women and their families in the public eye. “[V]ery little meaningful policy work has been done in this area—and my opponent has no child care plan,” he said in his speech outlining his plan. This is either extreme ignorance or arrogance given that many states and cities have already launched successful family leave plans and early education programs.

It’s also hard to dismiss as coincidence that the better plans—the ones that Trump shows such cynical contempt for—happen to have been proposed by women.