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Democratic front-runners pledge support for working families

Candidates offer similar policy proposals

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

Back in 2002 -- when early supporters were starting to outline the objectives of the US mothers' movement -- putting family-friendly policies on the national agenda in an election year topped the to-do list. Discouraged by reports from DC insiders that topics like paid leave and affordable child care were off limits on Capitol Hill, we resigned ourselves to the fact that 2004 was a non-starter -- and even '08 looked like a long shot.

But the times, they are a'changing. Thanks to growing time and economic pressures on middle-income parents and research and debates inspired by Lisa Belkin's 2004 essay, "The Opt-Out Revolution," the last 24 months have offered an unprecedented number of news reports on problems facing working families and barriers to maternal employment. Even bureaucratic maneuvers such as the Department of Labor's request for information on the FMLA -- which family leave advocates considered a warning shot in a renewed attack on employees rights -- received a surprising amount of press. Whether through first-hand hardships or as media consumers, Americans are waking up to the significant risks of raising families in a nation where protecting corporate interests takes priority over the well-being of workers and children -- and, at least among Democratic hopefuls, candidates in the presidential primary race are taking note.

In mid-October, Hillary Clinton announced her plan for working mothers and families, with Barack Obama and John Edwards following suit shortly thereafter. (Full disclosure: I'm actively supporting the Obama campaign in the New Hampshire primary.) As voters might anticipate, the leading candidates' policy proposals are consistent with their overarching campaign narratives. Citing her experience as a "working mother," Clinton supports programs and business incentives to "give parents more choices to make the decisions that are best for them." Obama bundles paid leave and child care policies with a broader package to strengthen the middle-class and restore economic mobility for lower-income families, while Edwards endorses family-friendly policies as part of his pro-labor, populist agenda. Overall, the candidate's proposal are strikingly similar and uniformly modest (links to the candidate's fact sheets and side-by-side comparisons appear below).

While media attention has focused on the platforms of early-state frontrunners, it would be remiss to ignore the work-life policy positions of other Democratic candidates -- particularly Chris Dodd, who authored of two key pieces of family-friendly legislation, the FMLA and the Child Care Development Block Grant. (In a general statement, Dodd pledges support for eight weeks of paid family and medical leave, increasing access to affordable, quality child care by expanding funding for the CCDBG, providing incentives for businesses to provide child care for their employees, and expanding the existing Child Tax Credit.) Bill Richardson supports paid leave as part of his women's issues platform, and Joe Biden's campaign web site notes his co-sponsorship of the Healthy Families Act, which would guarantee seven days of paid sick days to workers in businesses with 15 or more employees. At writing, however, no other candidates have issued detailed statements on family-friendly initiatives.

On the Republican side, candidates must contend with the conservative business lobby's open hostility to family-friendly policies and a distaste for social spending among voters on the far right. "The Republicans certainly know the kind of workplace they admire," writes Paul Waldman in a recent commentary for The American Prospect Online. "It's one in which power -- not values, principles, or fairness, but raw power -- determines how people are treated. They find deeply troubling anything that constrains employers from exploiting their workers to whatever degree they see fit." (According to a recent Pew survey on mothers' work preferences, Republican voters are also more likely to agree that it's best for children if mothers stay home.) In any case, the GOP candidate's web sites offer scant information about where the candidates stand on supporting maternal employment and valuing families in the workplace.

Now, the reality check: With the occupation in Iraq, resolving America's health care crisis, and energy policy dominating public concerns, it's unlikely that variations in the candidates' proposals for paid leave and child care funding will sway the decision of voters in early primary states. Given the range and urgency of domestic and foreign policy issues at hand, it's pretty remarkable that work-life reconciliation policies are even on the table (not that I'm complaining, mind you). But it is a hopeful sign that our elected leaders are prepared to address the impossibility of "balancing" work and family in America -- and that relieving the nation's care crisis has finally gained traction as a mainstream issue.

mmo : december 2007

Policy statements:
(Candidates' proposals are ordered based on date of release)

Hillary Clinton: Helping Parents Balance Work & Family

Barack Obama’s Plan to Reclaim the American Dream: Work-Family Balance

John Edwards Announces Bold Plan for Paid Family and Medical Leave


Take Care Net 2007 Presidential Candidate Survey Results

Comparing the plans:

Table 1:
Expanding the FMLA | Paid Family & Medical Leave | Paid Sick Days

Table 2:
Child Care & Afterschool Care | Universal Preschool

Table 3:
Workplace Flexibility | Family Responsibilities Discrimination | Additional Provisions

Printable table, in .pdf

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the editor of the Mothers Movement Online.
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