President Obama has been pushing the idea that “family-friendly” workplace policies—such as paid family leave, flexible hours, low-cost or free child care and a higher minimum wage—are “basic needs.” He recently lauded states that “give” workers paid family leave and are “offering” paid sick days.
But in reality, states don’t give or offer. They force businesses to give and offer. And like all well-intended legislation, this kind of micromanagement of business-employee relationships comes with unintended consequences.
Take paid family leave, which is funded by the payroll tax, the nation’s most regressive tax. No matter how little you earn, you pay the same percentage, beginning with your first dollar. This means that the teen girl and single mother working at McDonald’s are paying into the system so a CEO can take a few weeks off to care for her sick mother.
Then there’s the fact that, as conservative author Kay Hymowitz recently pointed out, even with a paycheck coming in, taking time off work still has negative consequences over the long term.
She looked at the data from Nordic countries, where parents are guaranteed up to 12 months leave after the birth of a child, and found that women who availed themselves of the time off were generally “mommy-tracked.” They came back to their jobs, but their pay was lower, and they had less power than women who took less, or no, time off.
The unintended consequences of forcing businesses to pay a higher minimum wage are likewise well documented, most recently by conservative writer Carrie Lukas. In her response to President Obama for Forbes, she explains that the poverty problem disproportionately facing women and single mothers is less about low wages and more about under- and unemployment.
In fact, insufficient employment is a bigger cause of poverty than low wages. When you look at who’s living in poverty, only 1 in 10 have full-time, year-round work. Two-thirds of people in poverty don’t work at all, according to the U.S. Census. How does raising the minimum wage help them, especially when it may make it even harder to find work?
President Obama is right to point how the exorbitant cost of child care can be devastating for families. What he leaves unacknowledged, however, are the reasons that care for an infant is more expensive than yearly public college tuition (PDF) in 31 states, or roughly $15,000 a year on average. Ineffective, burdensome day-care regulations, such as the requirement for supervised training of child-care providers, jack up the price of something that illegal immigrants with minimal training and language skills can do with little difficulty.
What is Obama’s position on the fact that poor women either pay out the nose for poor-quality care or stay home, while rich women exploit our broken immigration system to get high-quality, low-cost in-home care?
President Obama is absolutely correct that ensuring work is compatible with motherhood is essential. Making mothering and working an either/or robs us all of the powerful contributions mothers make to our economy.
However, trying to force that outcome by fiat not only has and will continue to have unintended consequences, it also fundamentally ignores the root of the problem with working motherhood: We, as a culture, demand more from women when they’re at home.
Interestingly, while studying who took time off when it was offered to both mothers and fathers, Hymowitz found that the wife would nearly always take the time and the husband would nearly always work. The only way dads would take time off was when the time couldn’t be transferred.
Similarly, studies on the gender pay gap have found that when mothers have the choice between higher pay and a more flexible schedule, flex time nearly always wins out. The opposite is true for fathers.
The reason motherhood, and not fatherhood, is so difficult to mesh with full-time, high-paying work results not from bad policy, but from our cultural ideas about what motherhood and fatherhood should look like.
No amount of policy will change these fundamental facts. Mothers, and not fathers, are expected to want to take time off after the birth of the child. Mothers, not fathers, are expected to be the ones to leave work for the doctor’s appointment and dance recitals.
Paid family leave, flexible hours, low-cost child care and a higher minimum wage are wonderful things when government regulations get out of the way so businesses can offer them voluntarily. Google, for example, offers better family leave than California mandates, as well as on-site day care, flex time, and a high average wage. It does so because competition for the kind of high-skill workers it needs to innovate is high. Workplaces improve when employers have to compete for workers, and not the other way around. The only way to get there is through a growing economy.
So let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that a few policy changes will achieve workplace equality. The truth is that mothers will never be fully utilized in the workforce until fathers are fully utilized in the home.
That’s a hard truth for policymakers and culture warriors alike, but it’s the only “family-friendly” policy that truly helps the whole family.
This post originally appeared at The Daily Beast.