In her speech at the Republican National Convention, Ivanka Trump, the daughter of Republican nominee Donald Trump, made some big promises. “As president, my father will change the labor laws,” she said, vowing that he would help working mothers with paid leave and childcare.
At that point Trump didn’t have a plan on either issue. But on Tuesday night, he will announce details of his proposals, crafted with his daughter’s involvement. But they will likely end up doing more harm than help for most working parents.
Making motherhood costly
As reported by the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, Trump will put forward a paid family leave program, making him the first Republican nominee with such a proposal. (Marco Rubio released a paid family leave plan of his own when he was a candidate, but he has since dropped out.) His plan would offer six weeks of paid maternity leave through the existing unemployment insurance program, and he would reportedly pay for the increase in benefit costs by reducing so-called “fraud” in the system.
But by only offering paid leave to new mothers, Trump would neglect a huge number of workers who also need time off while potentially creating even more hurdles for working women. And running it through the unemployment system comes with its own hazards.
Currently, the United States doesn’t guarantee that workers get paid family leave, just unpaid leave for those who are eligible. That time can be used by new mothers and fathers alike, as well as those who need to care for family members or to recover from their own serious illnesses. In the four states that have paid family leave programs, leave can be used for all of the same needs.
But only offering maternity leave would mean that new fathers and potentially all adoptive parents would be completely left out. Anyone whose parents became sick wouldn’t be able to access paid time off to care for them. And anyone who went through a major illness would only be guaranteed unpaid time off.
As Sarah Jane Glynn, director of women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress (CAP), noted, “You could recover from childbirth but not heart surgery.” (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
And even women who would get the benefit could still end up being harmed in other ways. “If this really is just maternity leave, that is going to result in quite negative consequences for women,” noted Glynn. “We would see things like employment discrimination and a worsening of the wage gap.”
That wouldn’t just apply to new mothers, but potentially all women of childbearing age. Women already face a significant motherhood penalty, but studies have found that mandating benefits for women, such as long maternity leaves, can further harm women’s wages and employment, especially if employers see them as a particularly costly investment.
Then there’s the issue of running the new benefit through the unemployment insurance program. A number of states don’t even have enough money in their systems for the next recession, let alone adding something new. They’re also outdated and overburdened. As Glynn pointed out, some states don’t have electronic systems but still rely on stacks of paper. “Some states have great systems and programs, and some states have bad, broken systems that barely cover anyone,” she said.
“It is not a stable, robust system that could easily absorb something like this without a lot of infrastructure investment and without a lot of federal money,” she added. It’s unclear if that kind of money would be forthcoming from the Trump camp.
And that’s if every state decided to participate. Because unemployment insurance is run by the states, there is no way to force them all to participate in something like providing paid maternity leave, similar to the patchwork of states that have and have not decided to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. So some women may find themselves able to take paid leave, while others would still only be afforded unpaid time off.
Meanwhile, unless Trump changed the current rules of the system, women would have to quit their jobs to get maternity leave. “Technically, if you’re going to be part of the unemployment insurance system you have to separate from employment to qualify,” Glynn said. “It’s not a great situation to put new moms in.”
Helping the children of the rich
Trump is also expected to make some updates to his plan to tackle the ever-increasing cost of childcare through the tax code. He originally proposed letting all families, regardless of their income levels, fully deduct the cost from their taxes. That would have overwhelmingly helped the wealthy who have the highest tax burdens and tend to pay the most for childcare and done nothing for low-income families who don’t have federal income tax obligations.
On Tuesday, Trump will reportedly announce that the tax benefit will only be available to single parents who make $250,000 or less or couples who earn $500,000 and under, theoretically denying anything to those who earn more. He will also put forward a $1,200 “rebate” for low-income families through the existing Earned Income Tax Credit.
These changes will make the plan slightly less regressive, but still leave in place the basic structure that would hand most of the benefits to the rich and much less to the poor.
“It looks like his proposal has a fresh coat of paint, but it’s still pretty regressive,” said Katie Hamm, senior director of early childhood policy at CAP.
Families who earn in the $400,000-$500,000 range will still get a much bigger value of about 40 percent of what they spend, she estimated, compared to 10–15 percent for someone in the middle class. And because the tax deduction would only make up some of the cost of childcare — which reaches into the tens of thousands of dollars a year — wealthier families will more easily be able to cover that difference.
Trump’s $1,200 rebate for low-income families, meanwhile, is less than what they should be eligible for under existing subsidies. The Child Care and Development Block Grant gives enrolled parents about $4,800 a year, on average, to cover childcare costs. But the share of families who get that assistance has been steadily declining thanks to a lack of funding and is at a 15-year low. He could instead ensure that families who are eligible get the assistance they should already be receiving.
And then there’s the problem with distributing aid through the tax code, rather than a subsidy that can be paid out year-round. Parents would only get help covering the cost of childcare once a year at tax time, but they would have to pay providers consistently throughout the year. Wealthier families would again be more able to cover the expenses until they get a refund than low-income ones.
Trump’s plan, therefore, is “too little in terms of the cost of childcare and too late because it’s coming a year after they’ve already paid these childcare bills,” Hamm said.
Aides have also said that Trump will put forward tax incentives for employers to offer on-site childcare. While Trump has boasted that his businesses offer employees care at work, there is no evidence that they do. In fact, a declining number of employers offer it, down to just 3 percent.
Trump will also reportedly propose allow stay-at-home mothers to deduct the costs of childcare from their household tax liability, as well as the creation of federally matched savings accounts for families to pay for childcare. But low-income families have a difficult time putting tax refunds away into savings.