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Why Biden’s American Family Plan’s Family Leave – Reportedly – Gets Social Insurance Completely Wrong

Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported on some initial details on the American Families Plan, the third of the Biden administration’s massive spending bills, expected to be unveiled next week, and following on the American Rescue Plan already passed and the American Jobs Plan of infrastructure and social spending. The proposal is expected to include

  • $225 billion for child-care funding;
  • $225 billion for paid family and medical leave;
  • $200 billion for universal prekindergarten;
  • Hundreds of billions in education funding, including his “free community college” campaign promise; and
  • An extension of the expanded child tax credit/child allowance through 2025.

The plan is intended to be funded by tax increases on “wealthy Americans and investors, in addition to beefing up enforcement at the Internal Revenue Service.”

The Post did not provide details on the time frame over which these costs would be incurred or funded. (Recall that the “jobs plan” spends over 8 years and funds over 15.) But one might assume that his proposal for family and medical leave would be based on his campaign promise, that is,

“Biden will create a national paid family and medical leave program to give all workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave, based on the FAMILY Act. Workers can use this leave to care for newborns or newly adopted or fostered children, for their own or family member’s serious health conditions, or for chosen family; or to care for injured military service members or deal with “qualifying exigencies arising from the deployment” of a family member. During their time away from the job, workers will receive at least two-thirds of their paycheck up to $4,000 so they can better afford to take leave — with low- and middle-wage workers receiving larger shares of their paycheck.”

Now, the FAMILY Act is an existing legislative proposal which would provide 12 weeks of leave at 66% of pay, paid for by 0.2% of pay (employer/employee) contributions. And as it turns out, this proposal has been around since at least 2013, when on another platform I critiqued the bill not just for its egregious acronym (the bill title is the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which ought to be the FAMIL Act, and even then “insurance leave” rather than “leave insurance” doesn’t even make sense, but it’s rearranged to get the acronym) but for the fact that the contribution level appear to have been chosen as a politically palatable tax rate rather than based on any actuarial analysis of the cost of running such a program. In fact, in January 2020, the Social Security Chief Actuary provided an analysis of the bill’s cost, and found that rather than the proposed payroll tax rate of 0.4% would be insufficient and instead 0.62% would be required to fund benefits — and that under a surprisingly low set of assumptions around use of the benefits, that only 35% of new parents would take advantage of the program, that 4% of workers would have medical conditions of their own and 0.4% of workers would need to care for a family member, and that, on average, they would receive benefits for only two rather than three months. Yet nowhere in the legislation is there any means of adjusting the payroll tax to meet actual financing needs, nor adjusting benefits to meet the revenue available.

Financing issues aside, however, this approach is a reasonable form of social insurance provision. Quite simply, this is how social insurance works. We, collectively, want a means of collectively providing funds to people as circumstances require — retirement, disability, unemployment, family leave needs — and the mechanisms of social insurance deliver: universal payroll taxes with rates set as needed to fund these payments.

Consider a few international examples, based on the data available at the International Social Security Association website (and highly simplified):

France provides sickness benefits and maternity/paternity/adoption leave, for up to 10 weeks after birth, funded with a 13.3% payroll tax, plus family allowances funded with a 3.45% payroll tax, which include both cash benefits, childcare subsidies, and benefits for reduced work hours, paid for 2 years, more or less.

Netherlands provides a maternity leave benefit for up to 16 weeks, funded through its unemployment insurance program (2.85% payroll tax).

Sweden’s benefits have a parental benefit-specific payroll tax of 2.6% of pay as well as a 4.35% payroll tax for sick leave.

Germany provides maternity and sick leave with a payroll tax that’s combined with the costs for medical benefits, at 7.3% for each of employees and employers, for up to 8 weeks. Additional benefits, including a child benefit and a one-year 67% parental leave benefit, are funded out of general revenues.

And — as a reminder — when other “western” countries do fund their benefits from general revenues, this means they fund them from income taxes in which there is no special effort to “soak the rich” but instead their top tax bracket applies, generally speaking, to everyone middle-class (or upper-middle-class) and above.

This means that Biden’s proposal to fund family leave through a tax hike on the wealthy is not just ill-conceived but far from the international norm. And it won’t get us where its supporters want us to be. If we define social insurance not as something we all pay for and benefit from, but as government benefits “paid for by other people,” it will create a dead-end that will impact the prospects for social insurance, generally speaking — including reform of Social Security itself.

As always, you’re invited to comment at JaneTheActuary.com!

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