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Long ignored, child care and paid leave take center stage in 2016

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Cadei, Emily
Publication Date: 
12 Aug 2016



Not long after Hillary Clinton tore into Donald Trump's economic proposals in a speech Thursday, his national policy director, Stephen Miller, issued a statement complaining that Clinton "lied wildly about Mr. Trump's tax deduction for working families." The statement insisted that the Republican presidential nominee's proposal for tax relief for child care costs would help not just wealthy parents but middle- and lower-income ones too.

That this is even a point of dispute shows how dramatically the political terrain has shifted when it comes to policies affecting working families, long marginalized as "women's issues." In a span of just a few years, things like child care, paid sick leave and paid parental leave have gone from the sidelines of the national policy debate to center stage. This week in Michigan, both Trump and Clinton touted their proposals for assisting parents who are struggling to cover the costs of taking care of their kids. And Miller's statement is telling for just how fiercely the Republican nominee's campaign is now defending its commitment to helping working families.

"In the course of the election, I have been stunned at just how many times the issue of child care and paid family leave have come up," says Vivien Labaton, co-founder and co-executive director of Make It Work Action, a group that advocates for progressive policies that benefit working families. "I don't know, if you had asked me even two weeks ago, if I would have guessed that Donald Trump would be talking about child care."

Trump is definitely a newcomer to the issue. Until Monday, his campaign hadn't addressed child care affordability since last fall, and that was only when he was pressed by a Make It Work activist and then asked about it at a forum in Iowa. Trump's response: "You know, it's not expensive for a company to do it. You need one person or two people, and you need some blocks, and you need some swings and some toys."

It wasn't until the Republican National Convention last month-when Trump's daughter Ivanka spoke extensively and eloquently about the challenges facing working mothers and promising her father would help them-that the Trump campaign suddenly seemed to make the issue a policy priority. In his economic speech Monday in Detroit, the real estate tycoon and first-time political candidate said he would be working with Ivanka to flesh out his child care proposals, which he said he'd present in detail soon.

The Republican Party itself is going through a similar shift. Child care and paid leave have not been at the top of the agenda for GOP candidates this election, but it is something they've started talking about. Florida Senator Marco Rubio addressed the rising costs of parenting several times in the Republican primary debates. "It is expensive to raise children in the 21st century, and families that are raising children are raising the future taxpayers of the United States, and everything costs more," Rubio observed last November. "In 35 out of 50 states, child care costs more than college."

In a speech last September, Rubio also proposed a tax incentive program to encourage employers to offer paid family leave, a voluntary program he borrowed from legislation introduced by Nebraska Republican Senator Deb Fischer.

The United States is the only developed country in the world that does not guarantee paid leave for new parents. Under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, new parents are protected from losing their jobs if they want to take unpaid leave for a new child or for a medical reason.

Even Democrats, who pride themselves on being the party that champions women and workers, have only recently begun pushing new programs for working families and caregivers. Most in the party, except on the far left, had long ducked those issues, suggesting they were politically untenable. Child care costs came up once in the 2012 presidential debates, when President Barack Obama defended the child tax credit parents can earn, saying it helps women pay for child care so they can work outside the home. But the president did not propose any new or expanded programs.

Less than four years later, issues like child care and paid leave were among the central talking points in the 2016 Democratic primary. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders called for higher taxes on the wealthy to help fund public early child care and education programs, in line with a bill he introduced in 2011. In May, Clinton announced plans to cap child care expenses at 10 percent of household income. And both regularly talked up proposals to implement 12 weeks of guaranteed paid leave for new parents and those caring for an ill loved one.

What explains this dramatic shift? It's not that the issues came out of nowhere, says Sarah Jane Glynn, director of women's economic policy at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. Labor and women's advocates have been working for decades to win more rights for working parents and have been making gains at the state and local levels. Five states-California, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington-now have paid family leave insurance laws, and numerous others are studying the issue.

But Glynn agrees that child care and paid leave have "popped now," and she thinks it starts with the economy. "The recession changed things," she says. "We saw so many men losing their jobs and families really relying on women's earnings to get by." Social changes that have gradually normalized women in the workplace and reshuffled family structures have also "really changed the tenor of the way we think about women and work and women's contributions to their families."

Indeed, as Labaton points out "women are now primary or co-breadwinner in more than two-thirds of households," which means that "a lot of the work...that previously went unpaid has become pronounced because women aren't home in the same numbers as they used to be." Not only is the work no longer unpaid but it's becoming extremely expensive-according to Census Bureau research, average weekly child care costs rose 70 percent between 1985 and 2011.

That shift in the workplace is a big part of the reason Fischer believes it's important to do more to promote paid leave for parents and caregivers, says an aide. And when she first proposed the bipartisan measure with independent Maine Senator Angus King in 2014, "there weren't a lot of voices" talking about the issue, "especially on our side of the aisle," the aide says.

Of course, there's no doubt politicians have also noticed the polls, which have shown strong bipartisan support for stronger paid leave and child care policies. A survey that came out in May found that 72 percent of Americans support paid family leave. And 81 percent of people, including 65 percent of Republicans, agreed in 2015 that workplace rules that enabled paid time off and affordable child care "is good for our nation," according to a poll commissioned by Make It Work.

"I do think there is also a political calculus here," Labaton says of politicians' newfound interest in the issues.

Still, there are also plenty of partisan divides. Fischer and other Republicans don't support Democrats' proposals to create new mandates and programs for leave and child care, which they warn could become an expensive new entitlement program. And Glynn and others on the left argue that the Republicans' proposals are wholly insufficient to address the problem. The types of tax credits Fischer and Rubio have proposed for paid leave, for example, "don't really work," says Glynn.

But there is optimism. Glynn says the discussions among Republicans make her "hopeful that we will see better ideas coming out from conservatives as they put more energy into this."

-reprinted from Newsweek