FIve Steps To A Family-Friendly Economy

Terrance Heath

The White House will hold a Summit on Working Families today, as part of Democrats’ efforts to craft an economy that works for working families. Here are five policies with broad popular support that could make a family-friendly economy a reality.

1. Livable Wages

Contrary to conservative rhetoric, minimum wage workers are not just teenagers working at summer jobs.

  • More than seven million children in America, almost one in 10, have parents who work for minimum wage — parents whose income would go up if the minimum wage went up.
  • Most minimum wage workers are women, and many are mothers; 39 percent of low-income households are headed by working mothers.

Raising the minimum wage would boost the economy and make it easier for workers currently earning minimum wage to support their families.

2. Equal Pay

Changing social dynamics made it easier for women to work outside the home. Economic reality made it necessary. Today, four in 10 U.S. households with children under 18 include a mother who is the sole or primary breadwinner. In nearly 25 percent of married couples with or without children, the wife is the primary breadwinner.

Breadwinning wives and mothers still bring home far less than their male counterparts. According to the 2012 census, women still earn 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. The figures are even worse for women of color; 64 cents for African-American women, and 54 cents for Latinas. Those lost wages have consequences for families, as women are able to afford less of the things their families need.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would help secure equal pay for working women and their families by closing loopholes in the original Equal Pay Act, making sure women can investigate whether they are being discriminated against and strengthening penalties for employers who violate equal pay laws.

3. Subsidized Child Care

The majority of working families need child care; 64 percent of families have two working parents, and 84 percent of single parents work. Most are unprepared for the cost of child care. The Department of Agriculture estimates that it will cost $241,080 to raise a child born in 2012 — not including the cost of college. Nearly three-quarters of American families are overwhelmed by the cost of child care. Many spend up to 18 percent of their household budgets on child care, but most don’t budget for it.

In their 2004 book “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke,” Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi recommend subsidized child care in tandem with a subset for stay-at-home parents, and universal preschool that would extend public education to start at age three or four. Funding programs like Head Start also offers a child-care solution to low-income workers.

4. Paid Sick Leave

America is exceptional among advanced economies for its lack of any law or policy guaranteeing workers the right to paid sick leave to care for a sick child, family member, or address their own health needs. An estimated 38 percent, or about 40 million U.S. workers, lack any paid sick leave, according to the Center for American Progress.

NFS International, a public health testing group based in Michigan, found that about 25 percent of workers report going to work to despite being ill because their bosses required them to; 37 percent said they needed the money. Workers who go in sick risk exposing other workers and reducing productivity. According to the Center for American Progress, this costs employers about $160 billion per year.

5. Paid Family Leave

America is equally exceptional for its lack of paid family leave. There is no mandated maternity or paternity leave in America. A survey by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization found that only two countries — Oman and Papua New Guinea — do not provide paid maternity leave to women. The U.S is among four countries that doesn’t mandate paternity leave.

The Family Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, guarantees twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for eligible workers, following the birth or adoption of a child; to care for a sick child, spouse, or parent; or due to their own illness. However, nearly 40 percent of workers are ineligible for leave under the FMLA. (The Obama administration recently extended medical leave coverage to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families, who were previously excluded because of the Defense of Marriage Act.)

Unpaid leave forces many families with the greatest need to choose between work and family. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauo (D-Conn.) would provide 12 weeks of leave at 66 percent of salary to all workers by establishing a self-sustaining fund through employee and employer payroll contributions of just 0.2 percent of wages, or two cents for every $10 earned.

Popular Policies vs. Political Will

There is broad public support for family-friendly workplace policies. Majorities of Americans support raising the minimum wage, closing the gender wage gap, ensuring that workers can earn paid sick time, and establishing paid family and medical leave. What’s lacking is the political will in Washington.

Republicans just rolled out their own “working families agenda” that does very little to help many working families. In light of recent history, that suggests that Republicans will block any Democratic efforts to help America’s working families. However, Democrats have an opportunity to reach working families with an agenda that takes their concerns seriously and draws a sharp contrast between the parties between now and the November elections.

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