Fairness for Stay-at-Home Parents
Sen. Vance’s new legislation is a step toward leveling the playing field for traditional families.
Most American families would like to have mom or dad at home when their kids are little. The polling is clear: Fifty-three percent of married American mothers consider having one parent home and the other parent working full time to be the “ideal” arrangement for kids under age five. The same polling shows that lower, working, and middle class married parents all generally prefer a homemaker-breadwinner division of labor to other arrangements. The only outlier? Wealthy families, who mostly prefer to have both parents working full-time.
Although most ordinary Americans want their babies cared for by a parent at home, many policymakers considering early childhood issues seem single-mindedly focused on government support for paid childcare. President Joe Biden, for example, in announcing his (ultimately failed) Build Back Better Act argued it was necessary to spend $225 billion on out-of-home care because “the high cost of child care continues to make it hard for parents—especially women—to work outside the home.”
Whatever the merits of these proposals for increasing government support for paid childcare, they ignore what most married parents want, which is to care for their babies themselves. In a welcome change of pace, Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio on Tuesday introduced a proposal that is designed to support moms who want to stay home after their baby is born. For too long, homemakers have been neglected or even treated with disdain by many policymakers. It is long past time Congress looked out for their interests.
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The bill, titled the Fairness for Stay-at-Home Parents Act, addresses a provision in the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) that unfairly punishes mothers who decide to stop working after they give birth. As currently written, the FMLA allows employers to claw back healthcare premiums they paid during the leave period if the employee doesn’t return to work; in other words, the employer can demand the employee repay the premium costs. An employee who doesn’t return to work because of a “serious medical condition” or “circumstances beyond the control of the employee” is shielded from such a claw back. A mother who receives FMLA leave for childbirth, however, doesn’t get the same protection. In other words, should a young mother decide not to return to work after her baby is born, she might be on the hook for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
This is likely to be a very expensive surprise for a postpartum woman who wants to stay home with her baby. It also comes when she and her family are dealing with hospital bills for childbirth, as well as buying a crib, a car seat, diapers, and the like. It’s also bad for American society. Mothers who take on the important and demanding task of providing full-time care for their babies should receive encouragement and support, not be stuck with unexpected large bills. The FMLA doesn’t let an employer claw back healthcare premiums from an older person who has a serious heart attack and decides to retire early. It should also protect a young mother who wants to be home with her newborn. The bill also protects mothers who are only planning to spend a few additional months at home with their baby and then return to the workforce. In other words, it will help provide postpartum mothers with the flexibility to make the right choice for themselves and their families.
Vance has rightly seen a need to support moms who want to be home for the early years. His colleagues should join him. Legislators sometimes refer to “pocketbook issues.” For many families, the ability to have their children at home is more than a “pocketbook issue;” it is a heart issue. All parents know that the days are long, but the years are short. Legislators too often are focused on the issues that sophisticated special interest groups and lobbyists care about. There is no lobby advocating for stay-at-home parents, probably because most of them are too busy changing diapers, doing laundry, and getting dinner on the table. But the work stay-at-home mothers and fathers do is invaluable. Policymakers interested in the future of America should be sure to advocate for the stay-at-home parents busy raising up the next generation. The Fairness for Stay-at-Home Parents Act is a step in the right direction.