All of the jokes about parenthood are true: You stumble through life bleary-eyed, eager to spend every moment with your child yet desperate for the next break.
If you intend to throw your life into real chaos, however, try pulling off parenthood without paid leave and affordable child care. Suddenly, the daily frustrations of raising a child look minor compared to the prospect of quitting a job to become a stay-at-home parent because daycare is too expensive, or the heartbreak of leaving a newborn after two weeks because you work for a company or live in a state that doesn’t provide paid family leave.
These might sound like rare circumstances, affecting only the unluckiest Americans. In fact, it’s a devastating reality for many new parents, particularly those who belong to the millennial generation.
Talking about this isn’t fun, but it’s finally becoming a subject of national conversation. Months ago, Hillary Clinton proposed federal paid family leave up to 12 weeks for new parents, increased funding to subsidize childcare for student parents and subsidies and tax credits that would cap childcare costs at 10 percent of a family’s income. Last week, Donald J. Trump introduced his own proposals, which are meant to offset the cost of childcare with tax credits and provide six weeks of paid leave to some women who give birth to a child.
“Winning better paid family and medical leave will have a direct impact on your life and your ability to provide for yourself and your family.”
While the plans are dramatically different, they represent a historic development. This election presents voters with the first opportunity to choose from one of two major presidential candidates who have put forth parental leave and childcare policies.
That may seem insignificant compared to urgent concerns like climate change, national security and job growth, except that family policy influences the most intimate parts of people’s lives. It surfaces in arguments with a partner about finances, decisions about how to educate a young child and the exhaustion new parents feel when scrambling to work and care for an infant.
“Winning better paid family and medical leave will have a direct impact on your life and your ability to provide for yourself and your family,” says Vicki Shabo, vice president at the National Partnership for Women & Families, a policy organization that has played an instrumental role in developing federal family leave policy.
‘Common problems that connect us’
More than 20 million millennial parents already understand why it’s so difficult to have a family in the absence of supportive legislation. Shabo, citing a recent nationally representative survey of 500 millennials conducted by MTV, says they care about this issue. The poll found that nearly three-quarters believed there should be federal paid family and medical leave programs. Two-thirds said they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who favored such initiatives.
“These are common problems that connect us, and they have real world implications for [children],” Shabo says.
Childless millennials, however, may consider the economic challenges of parenthood a distant fate, and something they’ll be able to independently control when the time comes by choosing an employer with generous benefits or living in a city where child care costs are low.
Yet those individualized solutions don’t address a problem that has consequences for families of most incomes and backgrounds.
“Waiting until you have enough money to afford these things is not going to be an option for a lot people,” says Christina Postolowski, health policy manager for Young Invincibles, a research and advocacy organization focused on economic issues facing young Americans.
Despite the dominant headlines on how Silicon Valley is provide comprehensive family leave to its employees, few companies actually offer this benefit. Only 12 percent of private employers give their workers that type of paid time off, and some people don’t use that benefit because their workplace culture doesn’t promote it.
Expectant parents are frequently surprised to learn that they don’t qualify for 12 weeks of federal job-protected leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act because of the length of their tenure at a company or its size. Similarly, young people are often stunned to learn that FMLA is unpaid and that many companies do not let their employees stack that unpaid leave on top of an existing paid leave benefit to maximize their time at home.
Millennials also face hardships unique to their demographics. Research published last year by Young Invincibles shows that millennial parents are less likely than older workers to have access to paid leave. One out of five of these parents lives in poverty. A quarter of millennials are already family caregivers, most often tending to older relatives while working full-time, according to AARP. At the same time, childcare and education costs are nine times what they were in 1960, far outpacing wage growth over the past few decades.
And despite the expectation of gender equality in the workplace and at home, young parents encounter policies, like parental leave designated for mothers only, that reinforce traditional roles. Studies suggest that when leave policies target only women, it can perpetuate stereotypes and negatively affect their job prospects.
When paid time off is unavailable to women, they frequently drop out of the workforce. That not only suppresses their wages, but also drives down their long-term earning potential and retirement savings. Moreover, it makes it harder for families to raise children in environments where they can thrive. Such policies also deny male partners and caregivers the opportunity to bond with their child and take on equitable household responsibilities.
This is not the future most millennials imagined for themselves, and it makes clear why their participation in crafting paid family leave and affordable childcare policies is essential.
‘An issue of economic importance’
In years past, taking this stance would have been an act of partisanship. As Democrats championed such policies, Republicans worried that new federal spending and mandates would harm economic growth.
“I think of it as an issue of economic importance, not just for women, but for families and the nation as a whole.”
Aparna Mathur, resident scholar in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, says that dynamic is slowly shifting. Studies show that American women participate far less in the workforce by their late 20s and early 30s, a trend not seen in other industrialized countries where paid family leave is available. While some women freely stop working after becoming parents, Mathur says they are more commonly forced out of the labor market, particularly if they’re lower income.
“I think of it as an issue of economic importance, not just for women, but for families and the nation as a whole,” she says.
Mathur sees a role for government in solving these problems, and believes that millennials who aren’t already expressing their views should get involved in the policymaking process now.
The Clinton campaign long ago made these issues a part of her stump speech and policy proposals, casting them as a critical part of reshaping the American experience of parenthood. If passed by Congress, Clinton’s parental leave legislation would guarantee at least two-thirds of an employee’s salary for 12 weeks of family leave. The plan would be paid for by imposing higher taxes on the wealthy, though a similar bill in Congress relies on a payroll tax.
Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 14, 2016
Trump’s proposal allots six weeks of leave and appears to apply only to married women who give birth, according to comments made by Ivanka Trump. (The Trump campaign did not reply to multiple inquiries for this story, but told the Washington Post that the policy would be available to single mothers.)
Clinton’s plan has no eligibility restrictions. “Were not making a judgment about what types of parents deserve it and what types of parents don’t,” Corey Ciorciari, a domestic policy advisor for the Clinton campaign, tells Mashable.
“At the end of the day, its going to affect you, your family and the children you raise.”
Trump’s six-week leave, providing an average weekly benefit of $300, would be funded by eliminating abuse in the federal unemployment insurance program, though Mathur says it’s unclear whether the federal government could find billions of wasted dollars to sustain a new leave benefit for decades to come.
Clinton and Trump both propose reducing the cost of childcare, but Trump relies on annual tax credits to achieve that goal while Clinton uses a combination of tax breaks and federal spending. Clinton’s plan also includes universal pre-K starting for all four-year-olds and massive childcare subsidies for student-parents.
While there are few similarities between the candidates’ proposals, millennials shouldn’t underestimate the significance of having a choice.
“At the end of the day, its going to affect you, your family and the children you raise,” says Mathur of paid leave and childcare policies. “This is a matter of how we help people achieve their dreams in America.”