The Miserly Marco Rubio

With his stingy leave policy, Marco Rubio somehow manages to pour salt in all of the wounds plaguing American families.

Photo: DonkeyHotey

Florida Senator Marco Rubio must have read an incomplete memo about the challenges facing American families before devising his cruel approach to “helping” more Americans earn paid family leave. His proposal offers us the ability to borrow from our future Social Security payments when taking extended time to care for a new child touches on one vital need for American families, but ignores all of the other factors hindering economic mobility in our country. The blind spot revealed in his proposal is so absurd that it actually merits broader attention to the cruelty of the failed ideology that bred it.

Should Rubio get his way, he will pit two competing economic needs against one another in order to check his paid leave box. With more and more households relying on two or more incomes to make ends meet, paid family leave is a crucial necessity for families. At the same time, Americans are woefully unprepared for retirement. With an average savings of just $5,000 in the bank, Americans are going to need every last drop of their Social Security payment. Even still, Social Security is only intended to cover just 40 percent of total expenses. The only way Rubio’s plan could be more sadistic would be to suggest we add the costs of leave to our mounting college loan debts.

But it’s not just the leveraging of our future to pay for today that makes the proposal so tone deaf. It’s the cherry picking of pain points and blatant refusal to have a larger conversation about how to use America’s wealth to ensure more Americans can actually prosper that makes this idea worthy of unique shame.

With his stingy leave policy, Marco Rubio somehow manages to pour salt in all of the wounds plaguing American families. His message is clear: “Yes, we know you’re struggling. No, we won’t demand more from your employers. No, we won’t use America’s vast wealth to ease your burden. Sure, you can have a few more crumbs from a program you’re going to need and most of my colleagues want to tear apart anyway.”

Context is important here. Just six months ago, Rubio and his Republican colleagues approved a historic set of tax cuts that overwhelmingly helped the upper crust of households in this country. In doing so, they expanded the national deficit, sparked a corporate stock buyback frenzy, and triggered an increase in interest rates. It is now officially documented that wages have not gone up as a result of these sugar-rush tax cuts.

In fact, across most of the country, wages are stubbornly flat and can’t keep pace with inflating costs. On both sides of this equation, we see the kind of stinginess that Rubio’s proposal enshrines.

On the employer side, we see resistance to raising compensation to anything more than what the market demands. In a world where technology is fracturing the workplace and the political assault on unions is diminishing worker power, that market is failing us. There are few countervailing forces that can prod employers to do the right thing.

On the cost side, public investment at the federal and state levels is waning and directly passing more costs on to the family budget. A recent study here in Colorado demonstrated how child care, higher education, and housing are the primary drivers of our shrinking middle class. In each of these areas, our state has few public resources to assist with these costs. Mind you, this isn’t for a lack of economic growth — we’re among the top economies in the nation. The barrier is ideologically enforced low tax rates that shift tax liabilities onto low- and middle-income families while wealthier Coloradans break further and further away on the income ladder.

At the state level, little progress has been made on issues like paid leave, overtime, retirement security, and workplace rights. Even moderate proposals that divert a small percentage of worker wages into new social insurance programs are defeated by heavily financed political outfits.

These political forces are aided by organized business groups constantly warning of “slippery slopes” that might obligate employers to do more than the bare minimum for their hardworking employees. This has been great for their bottom lines, but terrible for the families in their communities. Those forces that stop progress at every turn must be overjoyed with the Rubio proposal.

Clearly, efforts to find common ground are sending the wrong message, and its emboldening our politicians to craft insulting proposals that pretend to solve the problem, but just make things worse.

If Rubio had read the rest of the memo on America’s economic struggles, he might have made a very different proposal. Sen. Rubio could have proposed a modest increase that is split evenly between employees and employers to Social Security. He could have enhanced the program with a flex account feature that allows beneficiaries to use some of those new contributions for things like college, paid leave, and housing affordability. This isn’t fantasy; policies like these are just around the corner in places that realize something must be done.

While Congress dithers and devises ways to further divvy up crumbs, six states and Washington D.C. have enacted paid leave programs. These aren’t just Democratic states. Earlier this summer, Massachusetts’ Republican governor signed a new paid leave program funded by a payroll tax split evenly between employers and employees. What’s more, unlike Rubio’s proposal, the state programs recognize the arrival of a new child is not the only time a family may need to care for a loved one. In Washington State, they’re even beginning to discuss portable flex accounts for contingent workers.

It’s true that beyond levers like raising the minimum wage and updating the overtime threshold, there are few ways our public leaders can raise wages. There are, however, many tools at their disposal when it comes to lifting the total compensation of Americans and bringing down costs we all struggle to afford. Increased contributions from certain types of employers and fairer use of our tax revenue must be on the table in these conversations.

There’s fiscal responsibility and then there’s pound foolish stinginess. Rubio’s leave proposal smacks of the latter.

If the wealthiest economy in the world continues to go down the miser’s path, we won’t be the wealthiest for much longer.