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Americans want paid family leave, and they support social programs for families, survey shows
Rebecca and Brad Snow say goodnight to their 1-year-old son, Bane, at their home in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. Neither Rebecca nor Brad was able to get any paid time off from their jobs when Bane was born. - photo by Lois M Collins
A new survey finds that paid family leave is popular among Americans, with slightly more than half saying the government should require employers to offer it. An additional 14 percent support mandating unpaid leave.

And for the first time, the major party presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have each announced proposals for paid parental leave, a fact The Washington Post called "historic." The United States is the only industrialized nation without any kind of paid leave policy, according to the World Policy Center.

The 2016 American Family Survey found that Americans would like to see an average of nearly four months of paid maternity leave and an average of just over two months for paid paternity leave, illness of a child or other family member, or personal illness. However, this unity dissipates when it comes time to decide who pays for the leave. About a quarter want all employers to cover it. Another quarter only want some employers to cover it. Fifteen percent want the national government to pay for it. The single largest response to who should pay for it is "dont know."

The American Family Survey also found Americans generally believe safety net programs like food stamps, Medicaid and housing assistance help families that struggle financially policy topics that, along with family leave, have been overshadowed by a campaign largely focused on character and scandal.

The study also offers some clues as to who supported Trump and Clinton in the primaries and why. It was conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University in late July, and includes responses from 3,000 Americans on questions about their everyday family life and values, their family structure and economic struggles, and their views on policies that affect families.

Despite the contentious nature of the 2016 presidential campaign, the survey finds that differences between liberals and conservatives in the importance of families and in their daily family lives is smaller than one might think, said Christopher F. Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU, who wrote the report with the centers co-director, Jeremy C. Pope.

But the study also finds that family structure, authoritarianism, economic insecurity and social connections impact how people feel about policies and politics.

Among the findings:

  • Trump primary supporters see a weakening in marriages in general, while those supporting Clinton believe marriage is unchanged or getting stronger.
  • One-third of voters who supported Trump during the primary election reported that besides immediate family, they relied on no one for help. One-fourth of Clinton supporters said that.
  • Trump's support base in the primaries included more men, especially married men with children. His supporters were also more authoritarian in their approach to parenting and were less likely to have experienced recent economic crisis.
  • While programs like Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance are generally viewed favorably, the strongest support comes from those who have benefited from the programs. Support is weakest among married parents.
  • Liberals and conservatives have different ideas about marriage and family, but their parenting and marital practices are very similar.
Pope said that while partisan politics are often divisive, its worth keeping in mind that most people do not live their lives in highly political ways.

He observed that the language of political opinion is fluid: When people describe themselves as liberal or conservative, they are not thinking only of politics. Many self-described conservatives may favor some liberal social policies, though the reverse is usually not true. A self-described liberal is probably fairly liberal on economic and policy issues, he said.

Family leave

Family leave is not just about caring for a new baby; it can also include caring for an elderly parent or a sick child. The survey found that requiring paid leave got the strongest support from liberals (79 percent compared to 35 percent among conservatives and 55 percent among moderates). When support for either paid or unpaid leave was considered, though, even conservatives were more apt to support than oppose family leave.

Women were more supportive of paid leave than men, 58 percent to 50 percent; blacks (64 percent) and Hispanics (61 percent) more supportive than whites (51 percent).

When it comes to paying for leave, the survey found more uncertainty.

Most people think employers probably should pay for it, but there are questions about whether that means both small and large businesses, said Karpowitz. We found a healthy percentage who just dont know.

If the federal government paid, disagreement exists on how to fund it. Liberals lean toward taxing people who make at least $250,000, while conservatives prefer untaxed savings accounts, similar to health savings accounts. Nearly 29 percent chose unsure.

The difference of opinion doesnt surprise Richard Reeves, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings Institution, given the attention paid leave has received in the presidential campaigns. People tend to support the policies that their ideological leaders support, he said.

Trump's plan would require six weeks paid maternity leave for mothers who gave birth, funded by unemployment insurance. Clinton's plan would allow both men and women up to 12 weeks under the Family Medical Leave Act after birth, surrogacy birth or adoption, at two-thirds salary, within limitations.

Parental leave is most immediate for those of child-bearing age. Paid paternity leave certainly burns bright for Desorae and Richard Gorton, 37 and 33. They hope to have a second child, but their experience when baby Greyson was born last November lingers.

Desorae had paid maternity leave and had accumulated other paid time off that she could stack on; she took 12 weeks paid leave. Richard didnt have any, and they could only afford two weeks unpaid leave for him. He delivers packages for UPS, and because baby Greyson was due during the holiday rush in mid-November, he was locked into the time he scheduled off. Though his leave began on Desorae's due date, the baby was born late and Richard's paternity leave ended one day after they brought Greyson home.

He had more time off than Brad Snow, 32. Snows wife Rebecca, 28, took some unpaid maternity leave, but his work schedule was not flexible. Brad couldn't take any extra time, and her leave created a financial burden that sent her back to work after six weeks.

The Snows are convinced new parents both need at least some paid leave. It would definitely help, she said, adding she also worries how theyd manage if her mom got sick and they needed time to care for her.

Overall, Americans support more maternity than paternity leave, recommending an average 3.6 months for mothers, compared to 2.2 months for fathers. Liberals recommend more time than conservatives.

Those most likely to support leave, paid or unpaid, are those who have access to it, even if they don't use it. They think it should be required for everyone, Karpowitz said. People who dont have it are less convinced everyone needs leave. That's interesting I might have expected those without the benefits might be the most eager for the government to provide it.

Social programs

Most people see safety-net programs like food stamps, Medicaid and housing assistance as helpful to families in need, although married couples or those with children view them less favorably, the survey said.

Respondents rated each program on a scale of 0 to 100 in terms of how well they help families in need. Food stamps received the most supportive response, 61, roughly the same as housing assistance at 58 and Medicare at 60. The Earned Income Tax Credit also got favorable marks, while minimum wage was much less popular, perhaps because some liberals were reacting to its current levels.

People who have used the programs like them best. Experience, not need, makes the difference. Liberals also show more warmth for them than do conservatives, but even so, the response across the political spectrum runs from neutral to positive, the study said.

The lowest ratings come from those who are married and have children.

Married couples tend to do better economically, and perhaps those who are more stable financially dont need safety-net programs and therefore dont like them, the study authors said. That creates a challenge for supporters, said Karpowitz. How do we help those who havent directly benefited from the safety net to see what a difference it makes for people who actually come to need it?

It's a relevant question: Among other reductions, the GOP's 2017 budget proposal included $23 billion in cuts to the food stamp program.

Kids and marriage are an essentially conservatizing force on policy, Pope said. People who achieve the kind of stability you get out of family and family life tend to like policies that help families a little less. They tend to be more conservative.

Leonard Lopoo thinks some people dont understand the nature or depth of the help the programs offer. People think you are poor or you arent. Thats not accurate; its a continuum," said Lopoo, director of the Center for Policy Research at Syracuse University. He noted it's not just a matter of being poor; many people are "very vulnerable to the same things the poor are.

Safety-net programs also help people "level out misfortune" during a temporary setback, Lopoo said.

W. Bradford Wilcox, who directs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said the underlying issue is that married people are less likely than others to see the government as a major source of financial support. "Theyre paying more in taxes than the unmarried are. I think because the marrieds are more financially independent and carry a larger share of the tax load, they tend to look at government in a more skeptical way."

The election

Sam Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence and an adviser on the survey, looked closely at how respondents ranked the most important issues facing American families, from crime to employment to substance abuse many of them part of the national pre-election debate.

Peoples attention seems to focus a little more on the economy (this year). The shift hasnt been large, but it has been a consistent shift, across all demographic groups, he said.

The survey also found Trumps strongest support base, as of late July when the survey was fielded, was men with children. His supporters scored higher on questions that gauged authoritarian attitudes, and they were less likely to have experienced an economic crisis in the last year than were Clinton supporters.

Karpowitz believes Trumps talk of being a strong leader who will bring order and discipline to Washington particularly appeals to his authoritarian supporters. Sometimes we have this view that Trump supporters are low-income, disadvantaged white well, they are white, he said. Disadvantaged voters are more likely to vote for Clinton than Trump at least disadvantaged in the sense that they had an economic crisis in the past 12 months.
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