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Paid leave is dead. That's too bad, Biden’s gender-neutral policy was the right one

(Getty images)
(Getty images)

For our son’s first three years, Daddy Day Care Monday was a weekly ritual in his life and mine. A freelancer at the time with control over my work schedule, I’d cordon off the first workday of the week to devote to him: going to the local library sing-along, playdates with friends, squeezing in exercise while he napped.

I never expected to be a father, but I loved that time with my son, even with the occasional parental stress, as on the winter day when I brought him home at lunchtime, asleep in his stroller. I left him to rest, bundled in his little parka. The next four hours were the most free time I ever had on those Mondays--and also anxiety-ridden, as I regularly checked to make sure my slumbering son was still alive, four-hour naps being unheard of. (He was fine. But I was relieved that daycare and my wife, who worked part-time, could take over worrying on other weekdays.)

It’s rare that public policy debates beckon these memories, especially now that our son is a teen. But the Capitol combustion over President Biden’s expansive social plans prompted this headline in the New York Times: “Men Are Caregivers, Too, In Democrats’ Plan.” Reading the story brought fond recollections to my mind and an oddball fact to my attention: While the U.S. offers skimpier public support for families than other nations, we’re actually more gender-neutral about it than many. We recognize the modern role of fathers in child care, and Biden’s paid family leave plan, bless it, would build on that reality.

I never expected to be a father, but I loved that time with my son...

Alas, Biden’s plan, for mothers and fathers, is reportedly dead at the insistence of West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. But there’s also reported agreement on extending poverty-slashing child tax credits. “The money goes to a child’s primary caregiver,” says the Times, “including grandparents or fathers, instead of being targeted at mothers, as federal cash assistance for children has been in the past.”

Paid leave is a big loss, to be sure. While we’ve required unpaid leave since the 90s, we’re the sole holdout on paid leave among the 38 developed nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Times was moved to write its story in part by grunts from right-wing caves over Pete Buttigieg taking paternity leave for his newborn twins.

Notwithstanding that knuckle-dragging, the transportation secretary’s decision, the Times wrote, highlights the American tendency to regard caregiving as the equivalent of the unisex bathroom, open to all genders. States and localities that have crafted family support policies take a non-gendered approach, including the District of Columbia, whose eight weeks’ paid leave for mothers and fathers is the reason Buttigieg currently works from home.

The president scaled back his original paid leave proposal, from 12 weeks to four, to hold down the sticker shock for Manchin and Arizona’s Kirsten Sinema. (The Treasury would have underwritten  paid leave for workers whose employers don’t provide it, while partially reimbursing those who do.) Evidently, that wasn’t cheap enough for Manchin, even though the need to help fathers support their children, rather than defaulting to women, has been laid bare during  COVID-19: It forced droves of mothers out of jobs to assume at-home caregiving.

I’ve argued that a simpler approach than Biden’s might have spared us the drawn-out, congressional hand-to-hand now unfolding. Rather than haggle over the number of weeks of paid leave, for instance, the politicians could have proposed strengthening unions, leaving the haggling over such rights to them via collective bargaining.

These measures certainly wouldn’t have appeased Republicans, who reflexively oppose anything that might help workers (and Biden’s political stock).

They also could have proposed a guaranteed income for struggling households, replacing our current safety net. Parents would decide whether to spend the cash on day care or to subsidize their choice to be stay-at-home parents.

These measures certainly wouldn’t have appeased Republicans, who reflexively oppose anything that might help workers (and Biden’s political stock). But more restraint with federal dollars might have tempted the Manchins and Sinemas of the Congress to play ball with the administration. If Biden’s paid leave is on the cutting room floor, rewriting labor laws to muscle up unions may be a Plan B down the road.

For now, child tax credits, for mothers and fathers, is our best shot at making Daddy Day Care Monday a seven-days-a-week possibility for families who choose it.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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