In 1970, President Nixon was poised to sign into law bipartisan legislation passed by both houses of Congress that would have addressed one of the biggest unfinished fights from the women’s liberation movement: universal childcare. He was in favor of it, too, until his adviser Pat Buchanan convinced him to veto it. Veto it he did, with such scathing force that the issue all but disappeared from the political radar for decades.
Until last night’s State of the Union address. President Obama has called for universal preschool before, but he has consistently couched it in terms of educating future workers, rarely talking about how quality care—starting at age zero—could help working parents. And he’s also called for more affordable childcare, particularly at the White House Summit on Working Families last June. But for the first time, he not only brought up childcare as national priority in his State of the Union address; he not only talked about universal childcare; he also talked about it as a gender-neutral crisis.
With last night’s State of the Union, Obama moved work/family issues like unaffordable childcare and an absence of paid leave into the mainstream—for everyone, not just women.
About halfway through the speech, he mentioned that during World War II the country provided universal childcare because getting more women into the workforce “was a national security priority.” After the Lantham Act created a universal childcare system, the employment gap between mothers and childless women shrunk by 4.4 percentage points. Each dollar spent increased women’s employment rate by 0.1 percent and their weekly work by 0.04 hours. But the program ended all too soon, when the war effort wound down.
Today childcare isn’t just about what’s good for working mothers. Fathers also want to parent but struggle to make it work. Equal shares of both parents—about half—say they feel stressed about juggling work and family. Fathers have nearly tripled the time they spend caring for their kids since the 1960s. Childcare, however, is still too often thought of as the domain of women. Not for Obama. “In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever,” he said last night. “It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or as a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.”
American workers don’t just need childcare either. As Obama pointed out, “Today, we are the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers.” We are nearly the only country in the world not to require paid maternity leave, not to mention paternity leave, and the only developed one without paid sick days. “And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home,” Obama continued. Not women, not mothers. Parents. When fathers are given the chance to take paid leave, they do, but just 14 percent have the opportunity.
If these aren’t economic priorities, they should be. Even though both genders increasingly spend time parenting, women are still usually the ones who are asked to choose between family and career when it becomes impossible to make them both work. Our lack of paid leave, affordable childcare and flexible work schedules are the direct cause of women’s flatlining labor force participation, which means we’re getting far outpaced by other developed countries. Mothers with regular childcare arrangements are twice as likely to stay in their jobs, and fully funding early childhood education would increase their employment by 10 percent. If women hadn’t dramatically increased how much time they spend working outside the home since the 1970s, GDP would be 11 percent smaller. And a shrinking labor force could take the economy down a notch with it, to the tune of a 28 percent drop in GDP.
No amount of logic or powerful rhetoric means that these policies will get passed in this Congress. They won’t. But the importance of bringing them up in the State of the Union can’t be overstated. It lays out the boundaries of the debate the next Democratic presidential candidate, be it Hillary Clinton or otherwise, has to operate within. It stakes a claim to these issues as those valued by the party itself. And it moves them out of the conversation women, and in particular feminists, have long had among themselves, into one we should all be having together.