House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif. gestures during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009 in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Those of us who have been pushing for better work/family policies know the story of how we almost had universal childcare all too well. In 1971, Congress passed the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act on a bipartisan vote. It would have meant the first step toward a universal childcare system, offering all parents a free, high-quality place to send their kids while they worked. As Nancy L. Cohen reports, Congress authorized five times what it currently spends on Head Start to finance the program.
Then, before President Nixon signed the bill, the evangelical right staged an intense backlash as part of the brand new culture wars, which wormed its way into Nixon’s ear through special assistant Pat Buchanan. Nixon ultimately vetoed the bill, saying it would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.” Thus the “family values” crowd was born and the bipartisan idea that the government should support working women by taking some of the parenting burden off their shoulders died.
That idea, though, is now seeing some surprising signs of life. First, President Obama took many by surprise in announcing a push for universal preschool in his most recent State of the Union address. His plan looks somewhat similar to the one proposed by Walter Mondale more than four decades ago in that it establishes a national system of childcare and preschools that would eventually be affordable to all families, covering kids from zero to when they enter kindergarten. Obama has been mostly promoting this on the solid research showing how beneficial this would be to the country’s children—and therefore society and the economy at large—but the impact on working parents is unmistakably a huge piece of this puzzle.
The ball kept rolling in a surprising way a few months later when Republicans decided to get in on the work/family game. They introduced and passed the Working Families Flexibility Act in the House. True, the bill did nothing that the name might promise. Rather than guaranteeing today’s workers more paid time off, it would simply allow employers the option of providing workers with “comp time” instead of overtime pay when they work more than forty hours a week. It came with few checks on employers’ ability to push their workers into this option and then decide that they can’t actually take requested time off. And true, it’s not an old idea—Republicans have surfaced this plan, which would essentially weaken overtime labor laws, in 1996, 1997 and 2003. But it’s telling to watch the opposition to workers’ rights and staunch defenders of the traditional family scramble to find a way to be relevant in the heating debate over work/family issues.
The most blatant effort in this growing political movement, however, was House Leader Pelosi’s new women’s agenda announced late last week. While the “Economic Agenda for Women and Families” being put forward by Pelosi, Representative Rosa DeLauro and a host of other House Democratic women strings together many bills that they have already introduced—the Paycheck Fairness Act, a minimum wage hike, paid sick leave and paid family leave among them—it does so under the guise of seeking to fix the broken work/family equation for women. This is an issue that had been deemed too politically dangerous for some time. President Obama tabled a bill guaranteeing paid sick leave in his first term, and while Michelle Obama was rumored to be interested in taking on these issues, she was steered toward less controversial issues.
None of this means anything is going to pass anytime soon. Universal childcare and preschool will cost significant sums of government money, even if they will more than pay for themselves in the future—anathema to many in Congress, and not just Republicans. As paid sick leave bills inch forward at the city and state level, so too do pre-emption bills that block local governments from enacting that legislation. We now have three states with paid family leave programs—welcome to the fold, Rhode Island!—but that pace has been more than glacial.
What it does mean is that this is an issue we can no longer ignore. Women have for too long been told that their guilt, stress and sometimes failure at trying to be a super mom and a model worker is a personal issue that has to be worked out among families. But now lawmakers are acknowledging that we all have a responsibility to make the workplace adapt to the reality that women make up half the workforce. Our families and our workplaces look different today than they did a half-century ago. Politicians have finally woken up to that fact. Significant action may not be very far behind.
The struggle of balancing work with family is not just a women’s issue—men also want better balance between the two.