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It's Time for Family-Friendly Policies in 2016

Amy Traub

Will American families finally catch a break?

As Hillary Clinton takes the podium at the New School today for a major economic policy address said to focus on issues important to families, she has her work cut out for her.

American families weathered decades of wage stagnation  and mounting consumer debt, capped off by a recession that depleted household wealth, reduced homeownership, and threw millions out of their jobs. Through it all, as politicians trumpeted their fealty to “family values,” American parents were left largely on their own to find and pay for child care and preschool education. Alone among advanced economies, American parents went without a guarantee of paid leave to care for a new baby, or even a handful of paid days off work to stay home when the six-year-old comes down with the flu.

Now however, there is new energy behind proposals to shore up American families. Millions of same-sex couples, of course, saw their families strengthened immeasurably with nationwide recognition of marriage rights. Meanwhile from Oregon to Connecticut, states are passing laws to guarantee paid sick days and to hike the minimum wage, while President Obama called childcare a “national economic priority” in his last State of the Union address and is working to boost overtime pay without the need to go through Congress.

As she aims to “secure a foundation for working families” the wind is at Clinton’s back. Today we’ll begin to hear more about what she’ll do with it.

Paid sick days are the low-hanging fruit. Recent polls  find that 79 percent of likely 2016 voters favor a requirement that employers provide paid sick days, including a majority of Republicans.  In the years since paid sick days laws were first enacted in the U.S., numerous studies  have found that they do not impede job growth or harm small businesses. Pushing for a policy similar to the The Healthy Families Act,  introduced in Congress should be an easy choice.

The Schedules that Work Act, aimed at making it easier for hourly employees with unpredictable and irregular work hours to get schedules that enable them to meet the needs of their families should also be on Clinton’s agenda.

Paid family leave, child care, and universal preschool are tougher because the policies would actually carry a public price tag – in some cases, a substantial one. For example, President Obama’s Preschool for All Plan, part of all of his budget proposals since 2013, includes a 10-year, $75 billion investment in federal-state partnerships to offer high-quality prekindergarten to 4-year-olds from low-and moderate-income families. Yet the costs for preschool, child care, and leave are already being paid – by strapped families with child care expenses that rival the price of college tuition and by the nation as a whole, which misses out on the opportunity to close achievement gaps, support working parents, and give the next generation of citizens the best start in life.  Here too Clinton will find broad public support for bold solutions: 70 percent of Americans – including a narrow majority of Republicans – favor using federal money to ensure universal access to preschool, according to a Gallup poll last fall.

A substantial national investment in early care and education also provides an opportunity to generate the type of family-supporting jobs the nation needs. According to Child Care Aware, approximately 2.2 million workers are currently employed caring for children under age 5. Among them are child care workers who earn an average hourly wage of just $10.44 an hour, or $21,710 annually. Raising pay in this critical profession to a more livable wage of $15 an hour, a many workers are now calling for, represents an opportunity to further increase professional standards for those helping to nurture our youngest citizens and to lift incomes for workers' own families and households.

The time is ripe for Clinton to begin filling in policy specifics. It’s one thing to call for child care and another to create a plan that truly enables families to get care that is secure, affordable, nurturing and educational. Similarly, calling for paid leave is different from standing up to the Chamber of Commerce (and its many allies in Congress) to secure the policy Americans have needed for decades. Today we’ll begin to see if Clinton will propose solutions that truly meet the scope of the challenges faced by America’s families. If front-running Clinton will not, her rivals, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Governor Martin O'Malley, may increasingly appeal to voters on these critical issues.