Child Care, Other Women's Issues Touted in Congress


by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director

A profusion of legislative proposals was unveiled at the opening of the second session of the 105th Congress which, if enacted, could significantly improve the lives of women. These proposals focused on expanding child care services and tax credits, offering more early education programs and after-school programs, providing better access to health care for middle-agers -- many of whom are women, increasing the minimum wage and strengthening the Social Security Trust Fund.

Funding for many of these initiatives would come from a proposed multi-billion dollar tobacco settlement or from a new $1.50 per pack tobacco tax. An additional suggestion for funding for such an ambitious agenda was the expected budget surplus of $200 billion over the next five years and possibly as much as $1 trillion over the next ten years. The healthy economy is generating higher-than-predicted revenues, and Democrats hoped to head off Republican plans to slash income taxes and increase military spending.
 

Child Care, Education Initiatives

It may come as a shock to longtime feminist activists, but policy-makers in Washington may finally be getting serious about child care. In his State of the Union message, President Clinton laid out a block grant plan greatly expanding child care services, doubling the number of low income families who receive child care subsidies to more than two million by the year 2003; funding more early education and after school programs (five million school-age children are left home alone); reducing class size to 18 in grades 1 through 3 by funding 100,000 new teachers by 2005; and doubling the number of slots over the next five years for Head Start. Five thousand old schools would be modernized.

In addition, the proposal would expand the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit increase for three million working families, wiping out income tax liability for most families with incomes below 200 percent of he poverty line (about $35,000 for a family of four) who have maximium allowable child care expenses.

Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-S.D., have introduced separate bills to fund various child care and education programs, for up to as much as $30 billion over five years.

These measures are a huge step in the right direction, but still far from ideal. The president's proposal expands some major existing programs, but doesn't create many new ones. Plans could be strengthened to better assist low income individuals and couples without income tax liability through refunds such as those suggested by a bill offered by Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga. Due to the inability of many parents to pay higher prices for child care, the quality of care remains low. Child care workers receive very low wages and often no benefits; advocates urged the government to step in and help increase pay. And, finally, there is still significant unmet need (even with the new slots proposed) for the highly successful Head Start program among eligible low income children.

One sour note is that the Clinton administration proposes to cut funding for existing block grant programs, including ones which support child day care, family planning, legal services, foster care, at-risk youth and others. It is a sad fact that politicians often play this sleight-of-hand in proposing numerous new programs, putting them into block grants for states and localities to receive—and then cutting back on funding later when no one is paying attention.
 

Family Leave Expansion

Several dozen members of Congress are sponsoring bills to expand the number of employees covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA, enacted five years ago, allows employees of companies which employ at least 50 people to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave if they, their minor child, spouse or parent are seriously ill or they give birth to or adopt a child.

The new proposals, including ones by Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., William Clay, D-Mo., Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., would lower the threshold to cover companies employing 25 or more workers. As many as 10 million more workers could benefit by the change. NOW supports this expansion and advocates for paid family and medical leave.

A bipartisan commission surveyed businesses recently about the FMLA and found little or no negative impact on business; productivity may even have been boosted by lower employee turnover and absenteeism.

Other legislation introduced by Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., would permit employees to use FMLA leave to deal with the direct results of domestic violence.
 

Medicare for Middle-Agers

When President Clinton and the Democrats announced plans in January to improve access to health care for persons aged 55 to 65 and held a hearing, NOW's e-mail request for witnesses was swamped with responses. It is clear from the numerous replies that many middle-aged women are without any health care at all and many are suffering from serious conditions.

The proposed solution is for persons aged 62 to 65 to obtain health insurance by buying into Medicare and to offer COBRA coverage to persons over 55 whose employers have reneged on their promise of retiree health benefits. Supporters note that people in this age group often have trouble getting affordable health insurance and are twice as likely to have health problems. Fifty-seven percent of current Medicare beneficiaries are women.

While it is clear that access to health care needs to be improved for this age group, it is not so clear is that the Democrats' proposal does much to improve access for older women. It appears that the Medicare buy-in will be very costly to individuals --perhaps as much as $300 per month. Also, the plan does not contain low income protections to address the fact that many women are disadvantaged by years out of the paid workforce due to child care or care of older relatives, work in low-paying jobs without benefits, and live longer, leading to greater financial obligations in paying for their Medicare premiums. Republicans have already announced their opposition to such a proposal, and advocates for older women are busy working up a more effective approach.
 

Saving Social Security

Resolutions have been introduced in about a dozen state legislatures (and have passed in a few) either to allow states to withdraw from Social Security and implement alternative retirement plans for state residents or to replace Social Security with a funded system that would allow workers to build savings for their retirement. All are intended to push Congress to let workers invest all or part of their payroll taxes in individual private accounts.

Several analyses show that women and low-wage workers have the most to lose by a privatized system -- under the current government program, lower-income earners are compensated at higher rates from the general fund. Most women do not have income from pensions and receive smaller Social Security checks because of their lower earnings -- hence smaller contributions to the system -- and women still earn, on an average, only 74 percent of what men earn. One calculation shows that all of this adds up to about $250,000 less in earnings for a woman to save and/or invest for her retirement. It's no wonder that so many older women are also poor.

According to various sources, women, twenty-somethings and people of color are being targeted as groups most likely to be persuaded to support a private or partly private system.

Additionally, privatization adherents have not explained how such a system would actually work. Perhaps they are envisioning a future where millions of investment managers would be employed overseeing tens of millions of retiree accounts.

Another Minimum Wage Hike

Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., has introduced legislation (S. 1573) to increase the federal minimum wage requirement again — this time to hike it up to $7.25 an hour, an amount that will restore the minimum wage's purchasing power to the value of the 1968 dollar by 2002. Erosions of the minimum wage's value due to changes in cost of living and inflation over the past decade have greatly undermined its effectiveness in keeping people out of poverty. Working full time at the current minimum wage would still hold a family of three under the poverty level; a minimum wage salary earns $10,712 annually -- the poverty level for that size family is $12,614.

The bill calls for increases of 50 cents a year, from the current $5.15 an hour, over the next three years and 30 cents a year in the following two years. (Future changes would automatically occur based on changes in the Consumer Price Index.) With this hike, the same family would be raised—barely—above the poverty level within two years, a level that NOW emphasizes is extremely inadequate without assistance from government programs.

Recent studies show that the most recent minimum wage increase has not led to job losses, as opponents had asserted.

In Other News

The Violence Against Women Prevention Act of 1998 is scheduled to be introduced on March 19th. Connect to the NOW Foundation web site at http://www.now.org/foundation/ for the full text. Advocates are attempting to push VAWA II, as it is called, onto Congress priority list. This major bill would expand upon the law enforcement, public education, research and victim services introduced in the 1994 act. A major effort to pass the bill will begin on the House side, while the Senate's schedule is less certain. Everyone is urged to contact members of Congress and ask them to co-sponsor this important measure.

Opponents of affirmative action programs continue to press their agenda. Rep. Charles T. Canady, R-Fla., is reportedly re-writing his bill essentially to repeal all affirmative action programs.

In the Senate, equal opportunity advocates were able to beat back efforts by Rep. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to delete the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program from the massive federal transportation bill (S.1173). By a surprisingly sizeable margin (58-37), the McConnell amendment was defeated during the re-authorization debate. The DBE program is a flexibl goal-setting program which has enabled women and people of color to compete more effectively against large male-owned companies in obtaining transportation and construction contracts. In recent years, it has helped generate several billion dollars worth of business and over 200,000 new jobs for those businesses.

And, finally, opponents are still preventing the confirmation of Clinton nominee Bill Lann Lee for the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

On a more positive note, the Senate finally confirmed Dr. David Satcher, formerly head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as Surgeon General. His confirmation had been delayed since last fall by abortion rights opponents.

After many years of work, NOW's Insurance Project may have an opportunity to gain visibility for its recommendations for a fair and reasonable approach to auto insurance. The Republican leadership's legislative priority list calls for passage of the Auto Choice Reform Act of 1997 (S. 625 and H.R. 2021, sponsored by a bipartisan group) and proponents claim that its passage would save women drivers $200 a year. To avoid alleged sexist insurance pricing policies, their literature explains, women could obtain lower rates by relinquishing the right to sue another driver's insurer for pain and suffering as well as economic loss.

NOW's Insurance Project will counter these claims in legislation which more appropriately fixes insurance pricing on miles driven, thereby allowing women to be most accurately charged as they drive less than men on the average, but yet pay (again, on average) about twice as much per mile as men for identical coverage.


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