Paul Ryan and the 12 Percent
The New Speaker Should Help Open up Paid Family Leave to Far More Workers
Paul Ryan attracted a lot of attention for setting some conditions before he would take the position of Speaker of the House. Especially noteworthy among those conditions was that Representative Ryan insisted on protecting his family time. Other parents can certainly appreciate that sentiment, but few workers have the rights enjoyed by members of Congress and other federal employees that help them to spend time with or care for family members.
Rep. Ryan is a member of the Twelve Percent Club – i.e. the 12% of U.S workers who have access to paid family leave. In other words, only one in eight American workers has access to the perk that Rep. Ryan enjoys, despite the fact that paid family leave is common in the rest of the industrial world. In addition, only 61% of U.S. workers are able to take paid sick leave, and only 38% are eligible for paid personal leave. (See Jennifer Oldham’s commentary for more on the contrast between the U.S. and most of the rest of the world.)
I am glad that Rep. Ryan raised the importance of time with his family. He probably scored some political points for making it clear that family is a priority for him and that the duties of being Speaker shouldn’t keep him from having cherished family time. But he could score a lot more points with the American public if he would use his new leadership role to advocate for laws that open up the 12 Percent Club to a lot more members.
A politician like Rep. Ryan is in a very strong position to highlight the importance of spending time with family. Just as it has been said that “only Nixon could go to China,” I suspect that a conservative male politician can be a much more effective Congressional champion for paid family leave and personal leave that allows others to spend time with their families.
Of course, all of this raises a number of questions about how Speaker Ryan intends to use his new political power and how he is able to use that clout. One thing almost everyone agrees with is that he has taken on an extremely difficult job, given the complexities of balancing the role of the majority party to govern versus the penchant of the “Freedom Caucus” to obstruct governing.
Notwithstanding the challenges, the fact that House Republicans had to beg Ryan to become Speaker gives him a great deal of power to shape policymaking and to lead Republicans in ways that counter some of the negative stereotypes about Congress and the current majority (in a recent survey, Congress was viewed less favorably than lice and colonoscopies). A very good way to create a more positive image would be for Ryan to make the case that family time is no less important for other Americans than it is for him.
It’s time for our country to begin catching up with the rest of the world in allowing parents to better balance work and family, and Speaker Ryan is in a unique position to lead the way.