You Are Not Alone: The White House Summit on Working Families
Decades ago, I remember women slowly awakening to the fact that their dissatisfaction about roadblocks to working outside the home was not just their personal problem. It was a hard slog to get from blaming yourself to recognizing that the “system” needed changing. It felt like that again at the White House Summit on Working Families held last week. The problems have evolved, but too many women still see the demands on them as parents as having only personal solutions: sleep less, work harder, do without, get it done. At the White House Summit, the recurrent theme was “you are not alone.” You are not the only mother to send your child to school with a cold because you just have to get to work. You are not the only family with less child care than you need because you can’t afford it, or with no savings because of the grind of paying today’s bills.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the women’s movement was criticized for being too middle class; for not recognizing that poor women, disproportionately women of color, were working, and badly needed higher pay, child care, and labor protections. Over the years, advances for women have meant that some have had the opportunity to do very well. But declining economic security for most Americans means that millions of families find it increasingly difficult to afford basic needs like rent and child care, and see their tight budgets unravel when they don’t get paid because of sickness.
The White House Summit on Working Families addressed issues of concern across the economic spectrum – from calls for flexibility in hours or working from home to support for raising the minimum wage and paid leave time. The planners made sure we all knew that all parents are working in more than 6 out of 10 households with children. President Obama told us that nearly 28 million workers would benefit if the minimum wage were raised to $10.10, and that in 31 states, child care costs more than in-state college tuition. He pointed out that some women cannot even get a single day off to give birth to their babies. “We should be able to take care of that,” he urged. “That’s a pretty low bar.”
The 1,300+ attendees crammed into a Washington, DC hotel came together in a palpable demonstration of “you are not alone.” Energy was high and it was a crowd ready to see that the personal is political.
Where to take that energy in the aftermath of the meeting is the big question. We need some national solutions: an increase in the minimum wage, more funding for child care, and requiring paid leave. But as energized as the Summit participants were, they didn’t harbor many illusions that Congress will act on these measures any time soon. The meeting featured a number of leaders of small and large businesses who were raising wages or providing flexible hours or leave time on their own, and the White House Council of Economic Advisers produced a report showing that businesses do just fine when paid family leave is implemented (after California began its paid family leave program, 90 percent of surveyed businesses said profits, morale, and turnover either improved or stayed the same). The Summit also emphasized progress made by state or local governments. In fact, 22 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted higher minimum wages than the federal minimum. In addition to California, New Jersey, Washington State and Rhode Island have enacted paid family leave. Connecticut has mandatory sick leave, paid by employers; New York City has also recently enacted paid sick leave. Many more states are considering such family-friendly legislation, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.
So those are two non-federal places to build on the work of the White House Summit: (1) encouraging more businesses to respond to the needs of their workers without hurting (even helping!) their bottom line, and (2) engaging in state or local campaigns to enact minimum wage or leave-time improvements.
But here are 5 key reasons why we must keep fighting for federal actions:
- Only 1.4 million children are in federally-subsidized child care: the lowest number in 14 years, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. There were more than 7 million poor and near-poor children under the age of five in 2012 (with earnings below about $27,400 for a three-person family). Children older than five need child care, and families with somewhat higher incomes also need help to afford child care, so this understates the need.
- Only 1 in 6 eligible children receives subsidized child care.
- About 40 million Americans are providing unpaid care to an elderly relative or friend each year; nearly two-thirds of these caregivers have jobs.
- It’s great that many states have taken the lead to increase the minimum wage. But more than half have not, including many Southern states with high poverty and a poor track record for responding to the needs of their low-income population.
- Just as the federal minimum wage should provide a floor below which no worker should have to go, the federal government should establish the right to paid time off when you or your family member is sick. 40 million workers lack paid sick leave. More than 8 in 10 low-wage workers have no paid sick leave, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.
First Lady Michelle Obama echoed the “you are not alone” theme at the end of the Summit. She talked about sending her kids to school a little bit sick, and feeling guilty about it all day. She recognized that the event was “just the beginning,” and said there is “no excuse” for America to be following on these issues; we should be leading.
Yes – we should. And as a start, we should be asking all the candidates for Congress whether they will vote for more funds for child care, a higher minimum wage, and paid leave. Corporations have record-breaking profits, get billions in federal tax breaks, and have not shared their gains with their workers. Workers deserve better, and the economy will grow stronger when they get the help they need.