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Why Paid Family Leave Has Become A Major Campaign Issue

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Marco Rubio are helping make paid family leave a major issue in this election.
Joe Raedle Getty Images
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Marco Rubio are helping make paid family leave a major issue in this election.

Driven largely by moms, parents — especially of young kids — have gone to work over the last few decades.
White House
Driven largely by moms, parents — especially of young kids — have gone to work over the last few decades.

Lance Mercier knows his job gets harder when a co-worker goes out on leave. But he recently also learned that raising a newborn involves, as he puts it, an "insurmountable" amount of work.

The 39-year-old bank manager from Silver Spring, Md., is currently on leave from work taking care of his newborn daughter with his wife, Luz.


"As a manager who has had a lot of people go out on leave of absence, it absolutely sucks when they go out on leave," he said. "This puts everything back into perspective for me."

In fact, he will likely end up taking more time off from work than his wife will. Lance's job provides full pay for three months. Luz, meanwhile, gets eight weeks off at 60 percent pay. She can take extra eight weeks of unpaid leave if she wants.

Lance has a new appreciation for family leave, and he's not the only one. For the fist time, paid leave has a prominent place in a presidential election. In this week's Democratic presidential debate, for example, Hillary Clinton took a swipe at California Republican Carly Fiorina's opposition to paid family leave.

"California has had a paid-leave program for a number of years," Clinton said, adding, "and it has not had the ill effects that the Republicans are always saying it will have. We can design a system and pay for it that does not put the burden on small business."

NPR has tackled the question of why the U.S. stands virtually alone in not mandating paid family leave, but here's another perplexing one — why now? New parents have needed leave for, well, for as long as there have been working parents. So what happened in the last few years to nudge family leave onto the national political stage?


Here is a list of factors that brought the policy into the spotlight:

1. Moms are working (and earning) more

No, paid leave isn't purely a women's issue, but it is true that with more moms working (not to mention the rise of single parenting, usually by moms), families need someone to mind the kids. Two-thirds of children live in homes where all parents work, as the White House reported last year, up from 40 percent in 1970.

Women are also one-third more likely to take leave from work than men are, according to the Labor Department, and the gap is greater for women taking time off to care for family members. Indeed, moms are far more often the caregivers to sick children than dads are.

Moreover, it's an issue that spans all sorts of divides — race, education and class, for example. The conversation surrounding women and work may have been loudest among the white-collar set (think Sheryl Sandberg and Ann-Marie Slaughter), but the women with the least access to paid leave of any kind are, in fact, the least-educated and lowest-paid women.

Finally, women are increasingly better-educated than men — we just learned this week that more American women have bachelor's degrees than men do for the first time. As women's economic potential catches up to men's, it makes sense that they'd also push for a policy that allows them to hold onto that power.

2. Women vote

Not only do women use paid leave; they also turn out to vote in greater numbers than men — a gap that has only widened over the years, according to data compiled by Rutgers University.

It's only a 4-percentage-point gap, but it has grown considerably, and in presidential elections, small shifts in voter participation can make a huge difference.

Once again, paid leave isn't purely a women's issue (see No. 3 below for proof), but it is still something women take more advantage of than men, thanks to both access and cultural values. Women are twice as likely as men to get paid leave, according to one Labor Department study. And to the extent that that drives their votes, it could drive women to candidates that support paid leave policies.

3. Men

Quite simply, men have started caring about family leave. And men are increasingly minding the kids — the number of stay-at-home dads is on the rise, as is the amount of time men are spending with the kids.

One 2014 study showed that Millennial men are less traditional in their views than their older counterparts (and those older men's views have also shifted substantially), overwhelmingly rejecting the notion that it's the woman's job to stay home with the kids, while the man goes to work.

"As the conversation becomes less gendered, the number of people interested in this issue increases," said Linda Hauser, a professor at Widener University, who has studied the economic effect of paid leave. And she adds it's not just about having kids. "It's also becoming care-giving neutral, as well. The care-giving support needs of aging adults are also becoming more prominent."

You could look at this cynically — men wanted paid leave, so we started talking about it. And you wouldn't be entirely wrong. Men are, after all, still overwhelmingly the ones running the country.

But when you consider how many men are now supporting their families alongside wives with equal (or higher) earning potential — and working alongside an increasingly better-educated female workforce — it makes sense that men would start wanting to help women stay on an upward career (and earnings) trajectory.

4. The president talked about it. A lot

Think back to 2008, when paid leave just wasn't a big issue on the presidential campaign trail. Fast forward to today — President Obama hosts summits on working families, brought paid family leave into the State of the Union for the first time and mandated it for federal workers.

And when the leader of the country drags an issue into the spotlight, that makes it fair game.

"Support from Obama is important in this most recent wave," said Ruth Milkman, professor of sociology at The Graduate Center at City University of New York. "He's not in a position to do anything at the federal level, but I think using the bully pulpit of the presidency has helped."

But then, what nudged Obama to finally make this a policy priority? His second-term "bucket list" might be one answer. You could also argue it was people like Sandberg and Slaughter and other activists for paid leave expanding the conversation around work-life balance. Or the three states (New Jersey, California and Washington) that passed paid-leave laws.

To be clear, President Obama wasn't — by a long shot — the first person to push paid family leave; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, has promoted paid leave for years, and members of Congress have introduced bills on it for decades. But raising its profile almost certainly made more room for other politicians to talk about it as well.

5. People like it (conditionally)

Of course, it doesn't hurt that family-friendly policies like paid leave are popular. A recent poll from pro-leave group Make it Work found that 81 percent of likely 2016 voters thought policies like paid sick and family leave are a good idea.

But then there's a catch: people like paid leave, but it's not at the very top of their priority lists.

"I think when you talk about some of these policies that we think can really provide some relief for working families ... generally, people think about these policies, and they make sense," as Democratic strategist Karen Hicks told NPR's Tamara Keith last week. "But I think people tend to have a narrow view of it. And so if everything's going OK for them right now, this is not a top-of-the-list kind of priority."

And that brings us back to Lance Mercier. Paid leave just wasn't something he thought much about — until he had a kid to take care of.

"My mindset was different," he said of when he was in his 20s. "It was all about work, work, work, work," he said. "But now, as soon as that baby comes out, your life changes. I know you've heard that time and time again, but everything changes."

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