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President Obama, We Need Better News for Working Families in America

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Image via Morgue File
Image via Morgue File

No matter your income level, you know from your bank statements that the cost of childcare in this country is on a steady rise. PBS reports that depending on where you live, full-time infant care can cost up to $24,000 a year, which is more than many state college tuitions. Childcare is, without a doubt, a huge, if not the biggest, line item in many families’ budget. No wonder that, as the Pew Research Center reports, the number of stay-at-home moms living in poverty has more than doubled since 1970. I already wrote about the grim economic findings for stay-at-home dads, which basically amounts to the same thing: For many parents, staying at home isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity.

Economics certainly played a role in my decision to stay-at-home with my son, Felix. As a private school teacher, I would have been forking over more than half of my paycheck for a nanny or daycare, a job I would have much rather done myself. Of course, we were fortunate enough to be able to get by on my wife’s salary alone. But that’s not an option all parents have.

This week brought some good news for poor, working class, and middle class families. No, government leaders did not provide many solutions, but at least some of them acknowledged and addressed the challenges we face. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with Sacramento’s mayor Kevin Johnson, just announced the formation of a national task force composed of big city mayors to tackle economic inequality. In an interview today on NPR, Mayor de Blasio spoke of how the U.S. Government’s policies have failed to keep pace with today’s tough economic environment. “A forward moving country, as we saw in… the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, is one where the middle class is growing, where people can support themselves, where wages and benefits are going up. We’ve been in the reverse dynamic for years now, but federal policies have not responded in a meaningful way, and that’s not healthy.”

The President himself agrees, and oversaw — along with First Lady Michele Obama — the first ever summit on Working Class Families. In an essay on The Huffington Post, President Obama said he’d like all American workers to have:

1. Flexible hours so that parents can take time off work from home in order to care for a sick child, or to be present at school events for their kids, so that being an employee wouldn’t come at the expense of being a good parent.

2. Paid family leave so that workers can take extended time off work to care for an infant or ailing parent. Specifically, the President writes, “the United States is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave.” He means on a federal level, as a right for all American mothers, not the maternity leave policies provided by private companies, some of which, like Google’s, are quite good, if you’re fortunate enough to work there.

3. Access to childcare, either in the form of daycare or a universal pre-K system.

4. And finally, a minimum wage of at least $10.10 an hour. And before you think that such an increase would only benefit teenagers working retail and fast-food, consider this: “… the average worker who would benefit from an increase is 35 years old,” the President writes. “Many have kids. And a majority are women. Right now, many full-time minimum-wage workers aren’t even making enough to keep their kids out of poverty.”

While there are concerns that raising the minimum wage would cause gross inflation of product prices and be a hardship for consumers, Mayor de Blasio suggests that companies have more resources to draw on than we may think. What about cutting CEO compensation, for instance? Forbes reports that while a CEO in 1960 might make 20 times what his or her employees made, today that CEO might make up to 273 times more, on average. Maybe for these folks, childcare isn’t such a great concern — though I’d be willing to bet that even the richest of Americans find the ballooning cost of their child’s education alarming.

On Slate, Jessica Grose points out that for all of this great talk, President Obama has yet to provide strong action. In addition to his HuffPost essay, he wrote an official White House memo encouraging federal employees to take advantage of the flexibility initiatives already in place, and adds a provision to those benefits protecting workers from retaliation. This doesn’t do much new, it’s just a call to use policies that are already there. Otherwise, he called on Congress to enact two bills: the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, providing better workplace protection for pregnant employees, and the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act; neither of which, Grose writes, seem to have much chance of passing.

Better hope for working families comes at the local level, with cities like New York putting into effect paid sick leave for employees and next year beginning a universal pre-K program (a city initiative that will be going into effect statewide). These programs will be closely watched, and in only a couple of years time, we may see more states and municipalities putting them into practice.

It’s obvious that something needs to change, as the current conditions in this country are only strengthening the divide between classes, and yet chances that the federal government is going to get it’s act together anytime soon are slim to none. What seems more likely to happen is that, like marriage equality and gun control laws, we’ll see states and cities providing families different levels of support. Just like city-folk consider the schools when they they think about which neighborhood to move to, couples may one day soon make decisions about what part of the country they want to start their lives together based on the benefits provided to workers and parents. Perhaps then, once we see the efficacy of these programs in action, our federal government will wake up to the fact that the majority of American families need help. We can’t continue to sacrifice our family lives on the altar of capitalism.

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