Before accepting the top position in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Paul Ryan set a number of conditions. The most obvious (and surely his toughest hurdle) was that the fractious GOP membership must unite behind him. But also important to the party's former vice presidential nominee was that he be given sufficient time to spend with his young family.
Speaker Ryan took some grief for that — not for wanting family time but because some saw this as hypocrisy because he has opposed requiring companies of sufficient size to offer paid family leave. Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," over the weekend, he defended that position saying it wasn't hypocritical to seek to be with his children on weekends in Janesville, Wis., but to oppose a "new federal entitlement."
Actually, he's right about that. Hypocrisy is when a person pretends to be someone he is not — usually as a pretense of virtue. Mr. Ryan negotiated his job requirements on his own terms, and he has been consistent in his opposition to government mandates. So "hypocrite" isn't the right description, but perhaps "short-sighted" might fit the bill.
The 45-year-old Republican leader reflects some fundamental changes that are going on in society, and instead of being castigated for being unsympathetic to those in lower-paid or less influential positions who don't have access to equal benefits, he ought to be recognized as a trend-setter. There was a time not too long ago when the phrase, "spend more time with my family" was used by Washington politicians only in the context of a scandal (as in, "I'm resigning from office today to spend more time with my family"). Rarely, if ever, has it been trotted out so publicly by someone ascending the congressional ladder.
This year, M&T Bank doubled the amount of paid time off it offers mothers and fathers who give birth or adopt a child to 12 weeks. It is not alone. Some well-known companies like Microsoft and Netflix have announced similar expansions of family leave in the past year, a recognition that such an important benefit is increasingly necessary to attract the best and brightest employees for whom family time is a high priority.
The role of the father is changing. In 1960, 70 percent of children were raised in households where the father was the sole breadwinner. Today, only three out of 10 households can claim that circumstance, as dual-income families outnumber them 2-to-1, according to the Pew Research Center. One of the results of this is that fathers are taking on more domestic duties, such as child care and housework (although still fall well short of what moms do).
Researchers also found that today's fathers believe they are spending more time with their kids than their own fathers spent with them. And it's got them wanting more: About half of working fathers interviewed by Pew say they are having difficulty balancing work life with family needs — just as 50 percent of working mothers say the same.
What should be government's role in helping families deal with this issue? That's a subject worthy of debate. Republicans may have a disdain for government mandates, but the U.S. remains the only industrialized nation without mandatory paid family leave. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, larger employers are required only to offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. For many Americans, going without a paycheck for three months is simply not possible.
Last year, then-Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law the Maryland Parental Leave Act that requires smaller companies to offer six weeks of unpaid family leave, and as a candidate for governor, Del. Heather Mizeur proposed a paid family leave policy like the one offered in California where a tax-supported fund helps cover the cost of family leave.
Gov. Larry Hogan is likely to be skeptical of such a plan, given his dislike for regulating businesses and for new taxes or fees, but he ought to at least use the bully pulpit of his office to encourage the business community to do more. If paid family leave is not possible for a business, then what about flexible hours or telecommuting? The country needs more leaders to stand up for the need to be home to help raise their kids or grandkids like Mr. Ryan has. If enough people take action, perhaps paid family leave will become the rule and not the exception among America's employers.