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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Donald Trump's Maternity Leave Plan Is a Big Deal, Too Bad It Sucks

Donald Trump's endorsement of the general idea that women shouldn't be punished for becoming pregnant falls short in many ways, but it also represents an historic break from the Republican Party.

by Jill Filipovic
Sep 15 2016, 5:09pm

Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka in Pennsylvania. This week the Republican candidate rolled out a maternity leave plan that falls short of what Hillary Clinton supports. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This week, Donald Trump made history as the first Republican presidential nominee to propose paid maternity leave and a childcare plan for new parents. It was a moment that went relatively under the radar, focused as the media was on "deplorables" and the scandals around Trump and Hillary Clinton's charitable foundations, but it was important nonetheless. The GOP's standard-bearer has essentially endorsed an idea more usually associated with the left: Women shouldn't be punished by their jobs for becoming pregnant.

Trump's plan is predictably light on the details. Under his proposal, new mothers would get six weeks of paid leave, and families would get an income tax deduction for childcare. The Trump plan also offers a $1,200 childcare spending rebate for low-income families and a savings account for childcare costs, which the government would match up to $500. Parental leave is popular among voters, and it could impact a lot of lives. Some 70 percent of American women with children under 18 work outside the home. In four in ten American families with children, the mother is the primary breadwinner—often because she's the only breadwinner, and the only parent, in the household.

At first glance, the Trump plan seems to be a recognition of this changed social landscape, and an indication that maybe the Republican Party is moving into the 21st (or even late 20th) century when it comes to questions of women and work. But though you might think that a presidential nominee would make sure his own party backs his proposals, there's been radio silence from leading Republicans: Nothing from House Speaker Paul Ryan, nothing from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, nothing even from Trump running mate Mike Pence, who held a Capitol Hill press conference with GOP congressional leaders on Tuesday and declined to discuss Trump's maternity leave plan.

Ryan's own "Better Way" reform agenda, which he released in June and which Pence touted , included nothing about childcare or parental leave. There's nothing in the GOP platform about family leave, and the only Republican presidential candidate to propose any form of paid leave was Marco Rubio, although his took the form of tax subsidies for businesses that offered paid leave to employees.

Paid parental leave and subsidized childcare have never been favorites of the Republican establishment. The official point of resistance hinges on generalized opposition to government programs; perhaps the more salient objection, if the one few Republicans will say out loud anymore, is simple ideological hostility to programs that make it easier for women to work outside the home, upending a long-declining traditional family model the GOP continually tries to politically engineer.

What makes Trump's plan even potentially appealing to his party is that it still reflects some very retro ideas about men, women, and work. Most notably, it's a plan for maternity leave, not parental leave full stop, and is therefore only for women.

Taking women but not men out of work to care for new babies sets the wheels of inequality in motion: Female employees, but not male ones, will bear the burden of their leaves being considered costly and onerous on their employers, which can have professional consequences for the women themselves as well as potential female hires, who employers may fear will take too much time off. Maternity leave without paternity leave potentially exacerbates the pay gap, leaving women poorer. And those early days of parenting are a steep learning curve; if only the mother bonds with and learns how to care for the baby, it's both a loss for the father and a potential career-interrupter for mom—when it's mom and not dad who knows how to soothe the baby, change the baby, and feed the baby, it starts to "just make sense" that mom will take on more of the childcare work, potentially to the point of giving up on paid work.

Clearly, Trump thinks caring for children is a lady problem—he's bragged about refusing to changediapers, and his maternity leave and childcare plans are clearly in the sphere of his daughter Ivanka, who is publishing a book about women and work next year. In announcing his plan, Trump imitated his 34-year-old daughter: "Daddy, daddy, we have to do this," he said.

Some Republicans are criticizing the Trump plan as Clinton-lite, and they're right: It's sort of like what she's offering, but not as good. The Clinton plan, released a year ago, promises 12 weeks of leave for new parents, anyone caring for a sick relative, or someone who is seriously ill themselves, at two-thirds of their full pay. It's financed by tax hikes on the highest earners (Trump's plan would be paid for by a vague promise to root out unemployment fraud). Clinton would put a cap on childcare costs at 10 percent of a family's income; families would recoup the rest in tax cuts and state-issued subsidies. She would also expand universal preschool options, raise wages for care workers, and offer childcare scholarships to student parents. Her plan isn't exactly the feminist dream either, but it's marginally closer.

Another way Trump's plan falls short of Clinton's in scope is that it doesn't do much for the poor. Most of the childcare benefits would come in the form of income tax breaks, which won't benefit the poorest Americans, who don't pay income taxes and would have to pony up for childcare up front. Trump did offer up to $1,200 in childcare spending rebates over a year, but evidently he doesn't realize or doesn't care that $100 or less a month doesn't get you much when childcare costs often exceed the price of in-state college tuition. Many childcare facilities also either refuse to accept or charge more for infants—and if women are going back to work after six weeks, they're going to need infant care.

If Trump wins, we'll see how serious he is about all this, and whether he could get Congressional Republicans to go along. If Trump loses, one imagines that it will be easy for the Republican conservative orthodoxy that his campaign has challenged to reassert itself, writing Trumpism off as a failure and playing back to the old base. Maternity leave and childcare would likely be among the first Trump proposals to be tossed to the wayside. But who knows—Paul Ryan famously refused to give up his family time for work. Maybe, in a few years, his daughter will take a cue from Ivanka and tell her daddy it's time for a change.

Jill Filipovic is a journalist and author of the forthcoming The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.

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