Benefits for new parents

President's proposal: Extending unemployment benefits after birth or adoption is poor planning.

June 13, 1999

MOST of us have seen this before: A windfall tumbles into our laps. Do we save it all? Pay some bills? Buy a few things? What if an unexpected expense turns up, and we're left scrambling to cover it?

The government is facing such a situation in this unprecedented peacetime economic boom. Some federal accounts are flush. The temptation is to dip into these funds to finance new endeavors.

We have previously opposed the use of one-time surpluses to underwrite ongoing expenditures. This is what President Clinton has proposed in extending unemployment benefits to parents after the birth or adoption of a child.

This is an ill-advised drain on states' unemployment trust funds. The administration argues that it is merely rewriting outdated rules so states can decide how to better accommodate a changing work force. But it is a potentially perilous mix of apples and oranges.

Unemployment trust funds, begun in the 1930s, were set up specifically to provide workers compensation when they lose their jobs. The money comes from taxes assessed on businesses.

Extending payments to couples who choose to have children and seek leave time from work would create a new entitlement never intended. The president's directive to the Labor Department gives each state the option of extending benefits to new parents. State legislatures would have to write the change into law. Earlier this year, Maryland lawmakers considered such a bill, but it was killed in a House committee. With the federal rule change, and the president's support, Gov. Parris N. Glendening may feel inclined to support it next year.

Eighty percent of the world's countries have some form of paid maternity leave, from Brazil's 24 weeks at 100 percent wages to South Africa with 12 weeks at 45 percent pay.

Perhaps it is time to discuss whether this country joins those ranks. The source of funding, however, should be one that will remain open to families long after sunny-day surpluses have been spent. Offering a carrot to new parents now, knowing that the money could easily evaporate in the next recession, is irresponsible.

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