The Trump Administration believes that caring for babies is so important that employers should give their parents up to six weeks of paid leave. It apparently doesn’t believe it is as important, or as disruptive to work life, to care for aging parents or other relatives in need of personal assistance.
That, at least, is the message it is sending in Trump’s 2018 budget. In a fiscal plan otherwise filled with cuts to government-funded social supports, the president proposed allowing states to use their unemployment insurance systems to fund paid family leave. The US is the only developed country in the world without a paid leave program.
But if we are going to recognize the need to give workers time off to tend to the needs of their families, why limit that support to parents of new-borns or new adoptees?
A new paper by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College describes the costs of carting for parents. Gal Wettstein and Alice Zulkarnain find that about one of every six adult children will care for a parent at some point in their lives. They’ll spend an average of about 77 hours per month, or nearly 20 hours per week, caring for frail parents. That’s half a full-time job.
Other studies have shown that adult children caring for parents are less likely to work and are likely to work fewer hours if they are employed. A 50-something daughter who leaves a job to care for a parent will forego, on average, $300,000 in lifetime income, including lost wages and retirement benefits.
These caregivers report higher rates of depression and are more likely to be hospitalized themselves than non-caregivers of the same age.
AARP has calculated that the economic value of family caregiving was $500 billion in 2012. Oh, and it turns out that it costs nearly twice as much to care for a frail senior than it does to raise a child from birth to age 17.
Critics of leave for adult children caring for parents say it would be too expensive. Or they complain that it is impossible to define when such a benefit should begin or end. A new joint report by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute describes a well-designed consensus plan for parental leave. But when it comes to a similar program for those caring for aging parents or others, the best the authors could do was this:
“We spent the bulk of our time discussing paid parental leave rather than paid medical or family care leave because of limits on our time and a lack of evidence on the costs of the latter. This focus does not mean we support only paid parental leave, as opposed to other types of leave.”
That seems to be where Trump ended up as well. During his presidential campaign, he talked more broadly about a true family leave program, reportedly at the urging of his daughter Ivanka. But while his budget proposal remains vague and unformed, it appears to apply only to those caring for newborns or adoptees.
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers are considering an alternative to the Trump plan—a tax credit for new parents of, say, $1,500. This too could be extended to adult children of aging parents, or those caring for other relatives with disabilities.
But such a credit has its own shortcomings. For many adult children caring for parents, it isn’t about the $1,500. It’s about the job. Hourly workers and even many salaried employees correctly fear that taking too much time off to care for a parent could cost them their job.
Besides, $1,500 would pay for about 1.5 hours per week or a home health aide (at $20 per hour) or about 19 days a year of care in an adult day program. Not nothing, but these adult children need the job security that comes with a formal leave program, not a few extra dollars.
It is long past time that the political system acknowledges that caring for aging parents is just as much a part of family life as raising children.