President Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) speech featured a number of important progressive and feminist policy initiatives – ones that will undoubtedly be promoted in the 2016 president election race. The president referenced more than a handful of key policy initiatives that feminists have been generally advocating for over the decades. Not everything in what could be a robust feminist economic agenda was included, but many of the key economic equity issues were there.
Calling it a national economic priority, Obama proposed a new tax cut of up to $3,000 per child per year to make child care more available, more affordable for middle- and lower-income families received sustained applause. The president also said that his plan would create more slots – that is, expanding availability for additional openings under the Child Care and Development Block Grant program to meet the need.
Though not detailed in the speech, the President’s plan also includes Preschool for All for low- and middle income families at a cost of $75 million and paid for by a tobacco tax increase; expanding Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships to provide high quality, full day early care and education for infants and toddlers; Full-School-Day and Full-School-Year Head Start, expanding these valuable programs to six hours a day and 170 days a year – an initiative that would be an important help for low-income parents; and expand the Voluntary Home-Visiting program that would provide more nurses and other professionals to aid vulnerable families with very young children.
Noting that the U.S. is the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to workers and that 43 million workers have NO paid sick leave, Obama urged his Congressional audience to send him “a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave.” Most of the 43 million are minimum wage workers like the ten million tipped wage (mostly women) workers in the restaurant industry who must come to work even if they are sick or their children are sick – definitely a public health problem and an unfair burden to parents.
Obama said his administration would be “taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own”, and noted that paid leave ballot issues were successful in the November election. In fact, his proposed budget will include $2.2 billion to reimburse up to five states for three years to help them implement paid leave policies. Additionally, $35 million in grants to states and $1 million through the Department of Labor for feasibility studies around providing paid leave programs.
Paid sick and family leave issues poll very well. A poll (Lake Research Partners, 2015) of 800 likely 2016 voters released this by the Make it Work campaign, found large majorities across the political spectrum favor paid sick days as well as equal pay, affordable child and elder care. Best of all, 73 percent said that the government has a responsibility to ensure that employers treat employees fairly by providing such policies. Furthermore, 70 percent said that current workplace laws and policies are out of touch with the changing reality of modern families and changed roles of women and men at work and in the home. Now why don’t all employers and Republican politicians get it?
Not only do they not get it, many Republican politicians and business groups advised by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have been aggressively trying to stop such initiatives at state and local levels. In 2013, Florida Governor Rick Scott ( R ) signed a sick leave “preemption” bill that prohibits local jurisdictions from passing measures (and also repealing current laws) that mandate accrued sick time for workers as heavily promoted by the restaurant industry and Disney World. Preemption laws have also been passed in at least six other states, according to the Sunlight Foundation, including Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kansas and Wisconsin – all signed by Republican governors. Other similar preemption measures are pending in a handful of states.
In the November 2014 General Election, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot measure requiring paid sick days for certain private employers along with eight cities in New Jersey, and the city of Oakland, Calif. sent a similar message to statewide lawmakers underlining the need for paid sick leave for all California workers. Washington adopted such a law in 2008; New York City’s Earned Sick Time Act goes into effect on April 1. Seattle and San Francisco passed such measures years ago and Washington, D.C. passed a district-wide law in 2008 covering all employers, with benefits requirement based on size, and exempting independent contractors, restaurant workers and a few other types of employers.
Again, the President advocated for equal pay – always a guaranteed big applause generator even from some Republicans who will never vote for a pay equity bill. Unfortunately, the short-hand way of referring to the issue is to say that Congress “needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man doing the same work.”
But we’ve had that law on the books for more than a half century, and we still have millions of women employed in dozens of undervalued job categories where systemic patterns of low pay persist. Also continuing unabated is the well-documented prevalence of sex-based pay discrimination from the moment a woman graduates from college and takes a position in such professional fields as the law, medicine, scientific research and many others.
So we are far from having legislation that would more effectively address these stubborn types of pay discrimination — and it doesn’t appear that this Congress will pass a strong pay equity bill – but we are thankful for the President’s shout out and will keep pressing the issue. Both the long-pending Paycheck Fairness Act and the more effective Fair Pay Act will be introduced into the Republican-controlled 114th Congress, but whether either will see any action is questionable.
The President called for a higher minimum wage, suggesting that ”everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, try it.” This brought a loud applause from Democrats. The Obama administration has backed an increase to $10.10 an hour which would be a great improvement, but would not bring every working family out of poverty.
NOW has advocated a much higher increase from the current $7.25 federal minimum wage to an amount closer to a living wage which for some regions could be $15 per hour and higher. Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women. As of January 1, 29 states have a higher minimum wage requirement. Given the Republicans traditional opposition to increasing the minimum wage, it is not likely that it will be raised in the 114th Congress – though we need to keep pressuring them to do that.
Obama said that we need laws that strengthen – not weaken – unions; union jobs pay women better than most comparable non-union jobs. It’s fairly safe to predict that legislation which attempts to reduce the effectiveness and outreach of unions will be pushed in this Congress by the GOP.
The policy initiative that has received the most attention though is Obama’s surprising proposal to make a community college education free.
In his SOTU address, the President said, “By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s sure not smart for our future.”
Certainly, the cost of higher education has been a stumbling block for many women and for those who already have families to support, it can be a barrier too tall to surmount.
Obama also said that he “wants to work with this Congress to make sure Americans already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams. And he urged businesses to offer more educational benefits and paid apprenticeships –especially noting that new generations of veterans are coming home and need work.
Obama took a victory lap, citing improved economic statistics that included nearly 800,000 new jobs and that the U.S. has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan and all advanced economies combined. These and other indications of an improving economy undoubtedly will be touted leading up to and through the 2106 presidential elections.
Other commendable initiatives include new “Precision Medicine Initiative” to accelerate progress toward curing diseases like cancer and diabetes and provide personalized information about our health status. He also pledged support of a free and open Internet – something NOW supports. He said that he wants to reform the tax code to get rid of loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing and allow the top one percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth – both in order to reduce economic inequality.
Finally, the President spoke against getting our military drawn into unnecessary conflicts and said that we need to combine military power with strong diplomacy.
It is a telling fact about the lack of interest the general public may have about government in that viewing audience for the State of the Union message was half (30 million) of that for Mr. Obama’s first State of the Union speech. Or, as some may believe, as a lame duck president he can accomplish very little and it is a Republican Congress now in the driver’s seat.