Christine Matthews, a public opinion pollster who has surveyed voters on the issue of paid family leave, said that while most Republican voters want it enacted, Republican legislators know they will not be punished for voting it down. “It’s not that Republican voters don’t support it. It’s that politicians know they’re not voting on that particular issue,” she said.
Neither Democrat nor Republican voters seem to list paid leave as a top legislative priority. A 2017 Pew Research poll showed that only 35 percent of Americans listed paid leave as a top priority for President Donald Trump and Congress. A 2021 Pew poll of legislative priorities didn’t list paid leave, with most Americans citing the economy and Covid as their biggest concerns. And according to an October CBS News/YouGov poll, only 36 percent of Americans think the Build Back Better plan would help them and their families (with 33 percent saying it would hurt them and 31 percent saying it would have no effect at all).
The 2017 Pew poll found that paid leave provided by businesses rather than government was viewed more favorably. I worry, though, that if we leave it up to the private sector, it will never happen for the majority of parents, particularly working-class parents.
If we’re going to move large numbers of American voters toward more full-throated support of government-funded paid leave, we need more fathers — and men in general — to be vocal about it. Abby McCloskey, who has served as policy director for Republican and independent candidates, pointed out that while she’s no apologist for Trump, she thinks his public support of family leave helped senior Republicans become more “willing and open” to it. After all, around 2 million federal workers now have 12 weeks of paid family leave because of a Trump-era policy.
Matthews believes we can increase the salience of paid leave for men and for more conservative voters by elevating new narratives. Many people tune out these new-mom stories (which is why I’m so full of rage right now), but if we want to be savvy about getting support for this issue, we should start telling stories like the ones Matthews heard from rural men when she was conducting focus groups.
“They’re talking about having jobs that are very inflexible, where they don’t get time off to support their wife who has had a baby or a serious illness or problem,” she said. Because they live far away from medical services or extra help, they feel the lack of paid leave particularly acutely.
This doesn’t mean women should stop telling their stories. I will continue to tell mine. We should continue forever because these stories are worthy on their own terms. But as political motivation, perhaps we need a different tactic.