Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst has taken heat in recent weeks for her comments on Social Security reform, suggesting lawmakers need to hash out a fix to the retirement system in private in order to avoid public scrutiny for changing the popular program.
Her latest remarks are not out of character, however. Social Security is integral to her proposed parental leave program.
Ernst’s “CRADLE Act,” introduced in March alongside Utah Sen. Mike Lee, supports allowing parents to withdraw a portion of their Social Security funds in order to take time off of work, a move many see as undermining retirement savings.
It Isn’t A True Paid Leave Program
“It’s not exactly paid parental leave,” said Michelle Lange, a mother from Urbandale. “Once again, the Republican Party is punishing women. This time, they’re punishing women for having babies, which is ironic. They’re telling women that if you want to take time off work after you have a baby, you can take a loan from your own Social Security — you have to pay it back, of course. That’s not paid parental leave, that’s not supporting women and families. It’s hurting them.”
Ernst, Iowa’s junior U.S. senator, has said by involving the Society Security Administration in a family leave program, the federal government could tap into an existing infrastructure rather than create another layer of bureaucracy.
The legislation allows parents to receive up to three months of paid leave by giving them the option to “postpone” Social Security benefits for two, four or six months once they enter retirement age.
“As someone who has centered my work in Washington on a message of fiscal responsibility, I’m well versed in the fiscal realities of Social Security,” said Ernst, in a March guest column in the Des Moines Register. “We must wrestle with the future of the program, the growing deficit, and D.C.’s out-of-control spending. But it’s simply untrue to say that our proposal exacerbates these problems. Paid parental leave is a debate worth having, but let’s have it honestly and not in a predictably partisan manner.”
Lange doesn’t believe Republicans are interested in a government-run paid parental leave program.
“They think that families, and women in particular, need to make it on their own, by themselves, without the government’s assistance,” Lange said. “I think that’s detrimental to the society as a whole. It’s very difficult. I’m a working mother. I know what it’s like to have a family and have a full-time job, and it’s not easy, it’s expensive. Childcare is expensive. You have to have some sort of assistance from the government in order to make better families and make society better.”
Megan Suhr, of Knoxville, gave birth to her first child nearly two decades ago.
Back then, she said, the ability to draw tax-free money from her Social Security savings would have been a helpful financial boost in the early days of parenting, but the long-term consequences wouldn’t be worth it.
“At the time, as a new mother, that wouldn’t sound bad to me — that would sound OK,” said Suhr, now a stay-at-home mother and part-time doula. “But now, 20 years into parenting, I realize how quickly I’m going to need to rely on Social Security and I’m going to want to make sure those funds are there.”
Nicole Smith, working at Drake University in Des Moines, in August wrote an article about her successful effort to make 12 weeks paid maternity leave a part of university policy. Before Smith and her colleagues secured the policy change, the university offered 10 weeks paid leave with the option to take two weeks unpaid under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
“In 2017, I attended the Women’s March in Des Moines, Iowa. Afterwards, I was so inspired that I made a list of things that I wanted to do to change things around me,” Smith wrote, in her Aug. 23 piece for “Working Mother.”
“The maternity leave policy at my workplace was one of them. In talking with my coworkers, I learned that academia is a notoriously difficult place for women who parent and are on tenure track,” she said.
“Women were making reproductive decisions based off their employer, and I didn’t feel that was right,” Smith said, noting the faculty members afraid to jeopardize their chance of tenure and hourly workers concerned about the financial costs of taking time off. “I wanted to do something.”
It Doesn’t Support Women, Families
Last year, on the 25th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the National Partnership for Women & Families warned against “half measures or fake proposals” that don’t constitute a universal paid family and medical leave plan.
“Reports that Republican lawmakers and the Trump Administration are looking at redirecting existing Social Security trust fund resources for paid leave are extremely concerning,” said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. “Such a plan would harm women in particular because they are still primary caregivers for their families and the wages they receive over their lifetimes trail men’s, leading to monthly Social Security benefits that are an average of 20% lower for women than men. But no one should have to borrow against already low Social Security benefits in order to access the paid family and medical leave leave need. Our country deserves to have the promise of Social Security protected.”
According to a memo Ernst’s staff released about the proposal, the parental leave policy was based on three principles: voluntary participation for employees, budget neutral, and “family focused.”
“Parents are looking for additional flexibly, and Congress can provide it by making an existing future benefit available early during the special time of starting and growing a family, which is truly unlike any other stage of life,” the memo states. “It doesn’t require raising taxes on American workers or further exacerbating the national debt.”
In the months since Ernst rolled out the policy proposal last spring, she hasn’t talked about it much in her re-election bid. Ernst did not mention the plan at her campaign kick-off event in June, and it doesn’t appear to come up often at her town hall meetings.
It’s Largely Unpopular
The American Family Survey, conducted by Deseret News, the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, and YouGov, found only 31% of Republicans supported Ernst’s bill, compared to 28% of Independents and 48% of Democrats.
According to the survey, released this month, two-thirds of Republicans, three-quarters of Independents and more than 90% of Democrats “support at least some form of paid leave.”
“The American Family Survey showed the Social Security model was unpopular among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike,” reported Deseret News, in an article about the survey results. “Less than 30% of respondents expressed support, and less than 8% expressed strong support” when asked whether they supported taking money from Social Security to finance a family leave program.
For Suhr, she was “leery” of any attempt to take money from Social Security.
“We hear all the time about how there aren’t enough funds right now, currently,” Suhr said. “We hear a lot about how they want to privatize the funds, so my initial reaction was one of mistrust, certainly. I don’t think it’s a real policy solution. I don’t think she’s really interested in real policy solutions when it comes to parental leave.”
Brenton Smith, who writes on the issue of Social Security reform, in a March 2018 guest column in the Des Moines Register, described the proposal as legislation that “solves one problem by creating another.”
“The money spent today will enable us to have parental leave benefits, but we are at the same time creating a bigger crisis in retirement planning for current workers,” said Smith. “Over the next 40 years, retirement age will increase by one or maybe two years. As a result, people aren’t sure whether they are giving up six months starting at 67 or six months starting at 69. Moreover, we are not entirely sure what savings will be generated.
“We need to stop looking at Social Security as the one-stop cure-all for the needs of the nation,” he said.
By Elizabeth Meyer