Ted Cruz Invokes ‘Free Stuff’ Dogwhistle

For Sarah Sadowski, a mother of four children under the age of seven, the issue of paid family leave is personal. Because Sadowski’s employer did not offer her paid time off when each of her children were born, she was forced to experiment with “so many permutations” of child care.

“Every single year, my kids have to have a different child care arrangement,” she told ThinkProgress. “It’s really upsetting because they need continuity.”

During a campaign stop in Washington, NH on Monday, Sadowski asked Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz what he would do about the current lack of federally mandated paid family leave. Cruz, who has previously said employers should be allowed to deny their employees paid family leave, said that politicians should not promise “free stuff.”

“There’s no doubt that all of us would like to see everyone have paid family leave,” the candidate said. “That would be a good thing. But here’s the problem. Politicians love to campaign on giving away free stuff. It’s very good politics.”

He specifically pointed to Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who has called for college tuition to be free.

“Giving away free stuff is very easy for politicians to do, but the simplest rule of economics is TANSTAAFL — there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” Cruz said. “Anything a politician gives you, he must first take from you. And so if you have the federal government mandate paid medical leave, what that ends up doing is driving up the cost of labor for low-income workers.”

After attempting to explain the economics of how offering paid leave would cost people to lose their jobs, he added: “And by the way, if you get fired or laid off, not only do you not get paid family leave but you don’t get a paycheck either.”

Sadowski, who is also a volunteer with the New Hampshire Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy, was not pleased with Cruz’s response.

“His answer of ‘eventually we will get there’ isn’t satisfying,” she told ThinkProgress. “If it all hinges on economic prosperity and growth, when do I get to stay home with my babies?”

Sadowski, who said she would only vote for a candidate who endorses paid leave, teared up as she spoke about the issue. “We know the most important time for a child’s development is birth to three,” she said. “I’ve got to be more available for my children and it kills me that I have to go back to work and leave my baby behind. It doesn’t even seem safe.”

Stephanie McNally and Sarah Sadowski came to a Cruz event to ask the candidate about paid family leave.

CREDIT: Kira Lerner

Research shows that offering paid family leave does not actually drive up the cost of labor. A White House report from 2014 looked at California’s paid family leave initiative and found that the vast majority of the 253 employers affected — over 90 percent — reported either positive or no noticeable effect on profitability, turnover, and morale. In fact, the costs of not having paid family leave are far greater.

Currently, without a federal mandate, more than 70 percent of employers offer no paid maternity leave and more than 80 percent don’t offer paid paternity leave. That leaves 88 percent of the workforce without paid family leave if they have a new child.

The absence of mandated family leave creates significant financial complications for many families. A third of people who get partial pay or no pay after the arrival of a new baby have to borrow money, another third dip into savings, and another puts off paying their bills. Fifteen percent have to enroll in public benefit programs just to care for their families. A quarter of “poverty spells,” or episodes of poverty that last for two months or more at a time, begin with the birth of a child.

Republican candidates have often leaned on the accusation that Democrats are just offering “free stuff,” generally to minorities and poor people. In September, Jeb Bush said he was different from other candidates who just promised African Americans that “we’ll take care of you with free stuff” in exchange for votes. And in October, Marco Rubio similarly said that Democrats want to offer “free college education, free college education for people illegally in this country, free health care, free everything.”

The remarks echo a comment made by Mitt Romney about mainly African American NAACP convention attendees. “If they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy — more free stuff,” Romney told his donors.

Sadowski and her colleague Stephanie McNally, have also approached a number of GOP candidates to ask about paid sick leave, including Chris Christie and John Kasich. Neither candidate said that paid sick leave should be mandatory.