Paid Family Leave
And other matters
In June 2014, my mother suddenly and unexpectedly fell gravely ill. I had no way of knowing at the time, but my rush to get on an airplane to see her in the hospital would mark the beginning of what turned into a month of bedside vigils and extended separation from my own family, followed by another three months of caring for my father. That period was one of the most stressful seasons of my life. Looking back, though, I’m absolutely convinced that I weathered that storm with the benefit of exceptional advantages.
Our family was privileged to be able to live comfortably off my husband’s salary, which enabled me to focus on taking care of my parents. My husband’s job also allowed him to do much of his work remotely, so he was able to fly out to where we were to relieve my brother and me when we were at our wits’ end. And even though my daughter was only three years old at the time, my able-bodied mother-in-law was living with us when all this happened, so we didn’t have to worry about finding child care for her.
My brother, who was working as one of the pastors at a local church in 2014, also ended up being incredibly lucky.1 His senior pastor and congregation arranged for him to take several months of paid leave so that he could continue caring for our mother at home once she left the hospital—something neither guaranteed for people in his profession nor built into our broader social system.
Our immediate and extended families experienced many ripple effects from the health crises of 2014, even with incredible financial and social safety nets in place. I shudder to think what would have happened if we had not had those safety nets. It would have been catastrophic.
The devastating reality is that tens of millions of people in the United States do not have such safety nets. For them, similar health crises have been catastrophic for them and their families.
In the spring of 2021, the Center for Public Justice invited me to be part of an ecumenical leadership council under its Families Valued program to examine approaches to paid family leave that reach past traditional categories of right and left. The council, comprised of Christians from diverse traditions, denominations, and political orientations, began meeting regularly in June 2021 in an effort to move toward consensus on a public proposal that would broadly represent Christian convictions on the matter. Today, after nine months of collegial collaboration, our leadership council released its common ground proposal, “Honoring Families, Loving Our Neighbors: A Common Ground Proposal for Paid Family Leave.”
The primary purpose of the proposal is to set out the parameters of a common-ground approach that we believe: 1) would meaningfully help families, especially those who are vulnerable; 2) avoids creating excessive burdens on employers and, in fact, creates predictability for employers and a level playing field; and 3) offers a bipartisan opportunity to solve a longstanding problem.
Together we concluded that a common-ground approach to paid family leave rooted in Christian values should: 1) ensure universal minimum benefits, 2) prioritize those who are vulnerable, 3) support diverse cultural conceptions of kin, and 4) operate with administrative simplicity.
Since we’re a diverse coalition of Christians, the proposal is built on faith-based convictions we have in common. We all believe that seasons of vulnerability are part of human life, as is the responsibility to care for one another. It’s our shared belief that churches can help build a culture in which those who are vulnerable are not ignored or discarded but are enabled to flourish. In addition, we all agree that being pro-family is about more than protecting the nuclear family or one’s own immediate family. Single women and men and those with a range of family obligations are part of churches and the wider community. Moreover, there is an emerging group of young Americans who are unmarried and caring for parents, extended family, and even those they aren’t related to by blood. One fourth of the 40 million caregivers in the United States are in their 20s and 30s. About half of these caregivers are single.
In a country as diverse as ours, it’s vital that the many different family and cultural expressions of care be incorporated into paid family leave policy. One starting point is to guarantee all workers at least two weeks of annual paid leave for meeting health and caregiving needs. Why? Because we believe that without the establishment of minimum benefits for all families and for all who work, the stresses on families related to birth and other caregiving needs will persist. We’re seeing now that even after all the strains created by the COVID-19 pandemic, basic benefits such as paid sick leave and paid vacation are still unavailable to more than 20 percent of the workforce - particularly low-wage workers. One third of Black workers and half of Latino/a workers do not regularly receive any paid sick days at work.
If you’re short on time today, you can read the executive summary here, but I invite you to read the full proposal when you get a chance. It’s only nine pages long, and it’s a quick read. In it, we offer next steps that we hope will circumvent the polarization and gridlock that has stymied resolution in the past. The proposal offers sensible policies that can help secure the best health and future for families and for our country by creating a universal paid family leave program that offers robust benefits for new parents and end-of-life caregivers. It also urges policymakers to work toward guaranteeing all who work at least two weeks paid time off for routine health and caregiving needs.
On Tuesday, April 5, from 11 a.m.-noon CDT, Khadija Garrison Adams, Amy Ziettlow, and I will be conducting a webinar to inform the public about the work of the leadership council and the ideas in the proposal. If you’re interested in listening in, please register here.
A quote that serves as a… primer?
For the past six months, I’ve been noodling on this paragraph from an interview that Eugene Peterson did with Luci Shaw for Issue 62 of Image Journal:
The half of the Bible that isn’t poetry is narrative. Even the hortatory teachings of the New Testament are embedded in story. They’re conversations. If you try to talk outside of a story, you get either gossip, which is story without soul; illustration, which is an extract from a story without roots in relationship; propaganda, which eliminates people as they are and tries to turn them into something else; or examination papers, which are abstract knowledge outside of a living context. The Bible doesn’t do any of this, but we do it all the time. What distresses me most is when we do it in church, and all of us do. Language is the most distinctive thing about the human being, and we need to pay attention to the way it works. One of the things I hoped I could do in my lifetime was to recover some of the reverence for language within the Christian community by people who are not novelists or poets.
I’ve boldfaced the sections that jumped out at me the most. Thinking about them led me on a deep dive into propaganda—what it is, what it isn’t, how it shapes us (mostly at an unconscious level), and how we ordinary citizens not only imbibe it but also promote it every day without even realizing. The thoughts I have around this are likely to form the basis of my next long essay. I do, however, also intend to resume the series I started last summer, Turning from a Different Gospel.
So… stay tuned!
You can now read Life Reconsidered in the new Substack app for iPhone.
With the app, you’ll have a dedicated Inbox for my Substack and any others you subscribe to. New posts will never get lost in your email filters, or stuck in spam. Longer posts will never cut-off by your email app. Comments and rich media will all work seamlessly. Overall, it’s a big upgrade to the reading experience.
The Substack app is currently available for iOS. If you don’t have an Apple device, you can join the Android waitlist here.
Despite the objections I’m sure some will have, I intentionally use the word “lucky” instead of “blessed” here because many pastors in similar situations have not had the same generous level of support. By using the word “lucky,” I’m not denying God’s sovereignty or intimate involvement in the details of our lives. However, the word “blessed” tends to imply that those who receive certain benefits are favored by God whereas those who do not are somehow not favored by him, and that seems to deny a reality that runs concurrently with Providence: that the massive differences in distribution of both opportunity and suffering are greatly attributed to the way sin and injustice operate in the world’s social, ecclesial, economic, political, etc. systems. This is my attempt at theology in a footnote, so please take these few sentences with a grain of salt because I already know they’re nowhere close to an adequate treatment of this subject.