Leaving Paid Family Leave Out of Build Back Better Is a Tragedy

One might think, following a tragedy of unimaginable scale, that
there would be political will to provide some assistance to people to allow them to weather the unexpected without ruining their lives. But even
under the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, the congresspeople
who
work far less than most Americans (for a base salary of $175,000) have
declined to offer their constituents the most basic and widespread form of
state support. A proposal for universal paid leave for new parents, the sick, the
bereaved, or people taking care of ill relatives was whittled
down in budget negotiations over the last month from 12 weeks to four. Now
it appears
to be gone from Biden’s Build Back Better plan entirely. To hear some
Democratic senators tell it, to do what most every
other comparable nation has done—to allow someone experiencing duress to take a moment to be a person rather than an employee—is just
too expensive. Spend any time on forums designed to support the caretakers
of elderly parents or GoFundMe pages raising money for the rent payments of the
gravely ill, and it’s obvious what entirely avoidable sorrow is being
facilitated by politicians who take their own days off to pal
around on yachts. A father on
life support after a car accident can’t work, so his family is raising
money to cover basic expenses. A family needs help because, with their fourth
child on the way, it’s
inconceivable that they could, between the two of them, manage two unpaid
weeks off. A woman caring for her elderly father while working from home
designs intricate daily schedules and wonders if she can get her dad to respect
“office
hours.” Denying people paid leave implies that the work of caring
for others not only isn’t real work but that it’s an unnecessary distraction
from the fundamental point of being alive, which is to have a job. It places
the blame for the almost inevitable financial disaster that follows from a
person getting pregnant, or sick, or having to watch someone they love die, on
the person themselves. Universal paid leave is overwhelmingly popular, even
among Republicans, which may have something to do with the fact that even
if a person is primed to see any social safety net spending as a handout, they understand
that the things these programs cover happen to pretty much everyone. As
Hannah Matthews of the Center for Law and Social Policy told
Grace Segers this week, “The care needs for families are universal: Every
family will experience it at some point.” People give birth, they get sick,
they die, and all of those experiences, in the United States at least, come
with crippling costs. While estimates vary wildly, the average price of
delivering a child in a hospital is said to be anywhere between
$4,500 and $10,808.
(If a person has a cesarean section that number spikes, and then there’s the matter of
actually raising the child and finding someone to care for it: Infant childcare
can cost over $1,200 a month.) Illness is fantastically expensive. Two-thirds of
Americans who
file for bankruptcy cite medical bills as the main contributing factor. And
if those expensive medical procedures don’t work, the median cost of a funeral, as of 2019, was
$7,640. The paid leave package originally included in the reconciliation bill wouldn’t have
prevented the financial ruin that often follows the most fundamental
certainties of being alive. But it might have made an impossible situation
feel, for a few weeks at least, somewhat more humane.The most broadly covered failure here applies to new
parents. The hypocrisy of a political landscape that prevents
a person from terminating a pregnancy but makes it basically impossible for
them to raise a child is obvious. Lack of adequate leave or support has almost
certainly contributed to both the mass ejection of women from the workforce
over the last year and the long-term decline in birth rates in the U.S. But
there are so many other ways in which the lack of paid leave is a disaster, one
which unfolded with a particular slow-motion clarity over the last year and a
half. People went into work sick because they couldn’t afford not to; they lost
income as they were hooked up to ventilators in the intensive care unit; they left jobs to care
for family members suffering
from “long Covid,” the consequences of which researchers are only now
beginning to understand. And just imagine what it would have meant if the
people who loved the more than 700,000 casualties
of the pandemic could have taken a day or two off to grieve instead of
trundling, dazed, back to work.What feels like a lifetime ago, politicians and pundits said
the pandemic was a “great equalizer.” This was obviously a lie: As with most
everything else, the catastrophe was lopsided, visited most intensely on
communities of color and people without ample cash to spend. But at the very
least, it could have been an excuse to equalize access to the most basic form of
disaster insurance, ensuring that an eviction wasn’t the logical conclusion of
sudden illness or blind panic didn’t follow a pregnancy that wasn’t exactly
planned. It’s the kind of insurance people with white-collar jobs or wealth
have had all along. It’s certainly insurance members of Congress have. 

2021-10-28 | Joe Manchin, Joe Biden, Build Back Better | English |