As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a way to recognize the economic needs of the women who helped re-elect President Obama.
Both candidates spent a lot of time and energy courting women’s votes this cycle. But as predicted, the gender gap yawned on Election Day and pushed Obama to victory with a 10-point gender gap between him and Romney. How can President Obama thank the women who voted for him as he starts shaping the agenda for his second term? There are a variety of general economic policies that will benefit everyone, including women, such as spending federal stimulus money to kick-start a sluggish economy, ensuring the jobs being created in the recovery pay enough to support workers and their families, and bolstering a failing safety net to support the most vulnerable among us.
But while women hold down half of the jobs in our economy, they still face unique challenges and obstacles to full economic equality. If President Obama cares about women’s economic welfare as much Candidate Obama indicated, there are some important issues he can take on in the next four years.
- Truly equal pay for equal work: President Obama often talks about the fact that the first bill he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which helps address the gender wage gap. The act gives women more time to file a claim alleging discrimination since the truth may take a long time to surface. But while the act gets talked about like a panacea, it’s far from it. The number of pay discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC fell since the signing of the act while the pay gap widened. This is because the gap is caused by a complex array of factors: occupational segregation, hostile courts, and plain old discrimination. A first step to supplement the Lilly Ledbetter Act would be prohibiting salary secrecy, forcing employers to allow employees to talk about their pay with each other, something half of all workers cannot currently do. It will be next to impossible for women to address discrimination if they don’t even know it’s happening. But we also have to talk about how to move women into nontraditional fields, appoint judges to the courts that will stand by women when they sue for discrimination, and raise pay for the service sector jobs that women already dominate. These are large issues, but without putting them on the agenda they’ll continue to hamper women’s equality.
- Paid time off to care for family: We are one of just three countries among 178 that doesn’t guarantee any paid maternity leave benefits. Fifty countries go further to offer leave for fathers. Among the 15 most competitive nations, we’re the only one that doesn’t have a paid sick days policy. The reality is that the work of caring for children – when they’re very young, sick, or not in school – still falls mostly to women. Yet they can still lose their jobs when they need to miss work for this important caretaking. And without offering paid benefits, we force many women to take on debt or go hat in hand to loved ones and friends to get through. Not only will paid family leave benefit women, it will benefit men and help to change the care work equation. Men are more likely to take time off to be with a new child if the leave is paid – unsurprisingly, since families have such a hard time financing the lost income. And when men do take leave, they become more involved in their children’s lives. Universal, paid leave policies improve quality of life for all workers while leveling the playing field for women.
- Significant support for child care: There are two sides to child care. On one are those who need help caring for family and as mentioned above, they are almost entirely women. On the other are the caregivers, also almost entirely women. Our support for child care is pretty dismal and getting worse. The cost of putting two children in center care exceeds median rent in all 50 states. At the same time, the majority of states have pulled back on child care assistance for two years in a row. The Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit that gives parents who are paying for child care a tax break has only increased once in the last 28 years. The government needs to invest heavily in supporting working parents, men and women alike, with skyrocketing child care costs, allowing all who can and want to go to work to leave their children with quality caretakers. This is also a way to begin ensuring that these caretakers are well paid. In a national survey of in-home child care providers, the most common answer to how much they make in a week is $500, or $26,000 a year – a pitiful amount, not to mention that many don’t receive any benefits. Given how much families struggle with the cost and how many domestic workers don’t make enough to live on, the government must step in.
American women have flooded the labor market in the last half-century. But our economy and society haven’t changed enough to meet them halfway. President Obama won’t be able to fix all of these problems in his second term. But he can begin to address them and put a spotlight on these societal problems that we still think of as private concerns. I’m sure women voters would be grateful.
Bryce Covert is Editor of Next New Deal.