Debates

Sanders: 'When a Mother Has a Baby, She Should Stay Home With That Baby'

Bernie's debate gaffe reveals a serious problem with mandatory family leave policies.

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Baby for Bernie
Bernie Sanders

Here's the thing: What Bernie Sanders meant to say in yesterday's CNN debate was that he believes the federal government should make it easier for women to choose to stay home with their newborns, if they so desire.

But here's what Bernie Sanders actually said

Every other major country on Earth, every one, including some small countries, say that when a mother has a baby, she should stay home with that baby. 

Which is what we call a Kinsley gaffe—where a politician accidentally reveals a truth he did not intend to admit.

Because as well-intentioned as family leave policies mandated by the federal government might be (and they are undeniably wildly well-intentioned), there's a negative consequence that doesn't get talked about too much: There can be a blurry line between government subsidizing something—whether though regulation, transfer payments, or tax breaks—and requiring that thing.

A nudge can become a shove if you're not careful.

Take generous Germany, for instance, where a good chunk of maternity leave is actually mandatory—not just for employers to provide, but for women to take:

By default, expectant moms are expected to stay out of the workplace six weeks before giving birth, and many don't even know that they have a right to keep working past that deadline if they state it explicitly to their employer. They are not allowed to work during the two months after giving birth; this portion of the maternity leave is mandatory to protect women against pressure from an employer.

After that, she has a year of leave available to her at 65 percent of her salary and job protection for another three years. At least partially contrary to the original goal to make life better for working moms, however, the policy seems to have spawned a constrained and judgmental culture around working women's parenting choices:

The amount of maternity leave available also seems to put pressure on German women to stay home longer than might be good for their careers. A German friend returned to work before the first year of government-subsidized parental leave was up and was frowned upon when she took her eight-month-old son to daycare….

Being able to take a lot of time off lowers the pressure on society to create adequate child-care options that the government has guaranteed by law but that are nevertheless still not available in many German cities.

(Feel free to substitute "lowers the incentive for companies to get into childcare business" at the top of that last paragraph to get the same effect in a more market-oriented scenario.)

Advocates of federal family leave policies, like Sanders, tend to lean progressive. Which means they need to grapple with the fact that pushing for family leave can wind up wrenching open that wage and opportunity gaps they're so desperately trying to close.

In countries with big maternity benefits, mothers are (often) more likely to stay in the workforce, but are also more likely to get pulled off the management track and into dead-end jobs. The New York Times tackled this issue in a story last May pointing to several new studies that look at the before-and-after in countries that have increased benefits.

In Chile, a law requires employers to provide working mothers with child care. One result? Women are paid less.

In Spain, a policy to give parents of young children the right to work part-time has led to a decline in full-time, stable jobs available to all women—even those who are not mothers.

Elsewhere in Europe, generous maternity leaves have meant that women are much less likely than men to become managers or achieve other high-powered positions at work.

The Spanish example is particularly illuminating: 

Spain passed a law in 1999 giving workers with children younger than 7 the right to ask for reduced hours without fear of being laid off. Those who took advantage of it were nearly all women.

Over the next decade, companies were 6 percent less likely to hire women of childbearing age compared with men, 37 percent less likely to promote them and 45 percent more likely to dismiss them, according to a study by Daniel Fernández-Kranz, an economist at IE Business School in Madrid, and Núria Rodríguez-Planas, an economist at City University of New York, Queens College. The probability of women of childbearing age not being employed climbed 20 percent. Another result: Women were more likely to be in less stable, short-term contract jobs, which are not required to provide such benefits.

In general, advocates for increased family leave are a little more circumspect than Sanders, typically employing gender neutral language and rhetoric about choice. 

But all those applause lines about the wage gap—which are admittedly more Hillary's stock in trade than Bernie's—are too often at odds with the applause lines about the empowering potential of maternity benefits.