Ivanka Trump will now have an official job at the White House. It’s an unpaid role as an adviser to her father, the president, but it comes with an office, a title and, presumably, an even higher perch from which to fashion herself as a crusader for working women.
“Policies that allow women with children to thrive should not be novelties — they should be the norm,” she said at the Republican National Convention last summer. She has written a book, to be published in May, called “Women Who Work.” In her very own West Wing office she will shepherd policy related to “women in the workplace,” according to her lawyer. In April she’s headed to a summit meeting in Berlin on women in the work force.
While Ms. Trump may want to be the new face of working motherhood, the reality of the policies she has devised for her father diverge starkly from her rhetoric. They offer very little to most parents, especially the ones who really need the support.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump unveiled his daughter’s plan for six weeks of paid leave for women who give birth. When pressed, Ms. Trump made it clear that her policy was tailored specifically for coping with childbirth and was not meant for new fathers or parents who adopt.
It’s a plan that is likely to hurt all working women more than help them.
Employers are already more hesitant to hire mothers than other candidates, male or female. Part of what they fear, fair or not, is investing in an employee who will then leave to care for her children for some unknown period, taking all her training and knowledge with her and requiring the company to spend resources hiring a replacement.
Their anxiety will be amplified if women are afforded time off from work for a new child and men aren’t. If only mothers get a paid leave benefit when their family welcomes a new child, the stigma falls squarely on one gender.
That stigma then spreads from mothers to all women, even if they don’t have or plan to have kids. Any female employee within a certain age range becomes a risk if she could decide to take six weeks off at some point. Women are transformed into potential mothers and therefore potential costs.
Experience elsewhere offers some evidence that this is what will happen. On the whole, other developed countries — all of which ensure new mothers get paid leave — are attracting and keeping more women in their work forces than the United States. But there can be negative consequences depending on how they do it. Research has found that giving mothers long leaves that don’t apply to men depresses their earnings and makes them less likely to move up to higher positions. Other policies aimed just at women, such as a law in Chile that required employers with a large share of female employees to provide child care assistance, have had similar effects. Employers turn women away if they become more expensive than men.
The solution here isn’t complicated: Extend paid leave to all new parents. When California established gender-neutral paid family leave, the number of fathers taking time to be with their infants doubled. Women’s earnings and employment go up when men take more leave.
Ms. Trump and administration officials are reportedly now considering a plan that also covers fathers and adoptive parents and changes the funding structure, though a more expansive benefit program is going to be a very tough sell to Republicans in Congress.
The child care plan that Ms. Trump put forward isn’t much better than her paid-leave idea. Her proposal to allow parents to fully deduct the cost of care up to a certain limit would apply to all parents, unlike maternity leave. But it would give the biggest benefit to those who need it least. Even though it includes a tax credit for families with the lowest incomes, the bulk of the policy is a tax deduction, which is worth much more to those who owe the most taxes.
According to analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, families that make more than $100,000 a year would gobble up 70 percent of the total benefits. Those making less than $40,000, on the other hand, would get about a $20 boost to their incomes — not much compared with the thousands of dollars it can cost to put a child in day care. Yet poorer families spend a much larger share of their incomes on child care than those with more means.
These proposed child care tax credits, shortcomings and all, would cost the government $115 billion over the next decade.
Rather than offer a step toward something better later, Ms. Trump’s plan could stymie progress. If she were somehow able to persuade members of Congress to pass a pricey child care plan that does nothing to address the real concerns for most families, it would allow them to claim they already did something about the issue and ignore other, superior solutions. Worse, she risks giving them sticker shock without actually doing anything for families that aren’t wealthy. Conservatives are already calling her plan “mammoth.” If a real, comprehensive solution were to come down the road, would they have any appetite for it after this?
The climbing cost of child care has led to a 5 percent reduction in women’s employment in the United States in the past two decades. The lack of investment in child care is another reason other developed countries surpass this country on the percentage of women in the work force. No wonder, when far more women than men say they’ve had to take long chunks of time off from work to care for their families. Meanwhile, mothers with steady child care are twice as likely to stay in their jobs. If they were all able to get their kids into early childhood education programs, mothers’ employment would increase by 10 percent. A tax benefit for rich families won’t do it.
The politics of paid leave and child care have certainly shifted: They’re now bipartisan issues, at least among some lawmakers. But it is important not just that the country adopt these policies, but what kinds of policies it adopts. If Ms. Trump wants to champion working women, she needs to offer more than photo ops and empty promises.
Bryce Covert is the economic policy editor at ThinkProgress and a contributor to The Nation.