WASHINGTON -- Paid leave and access to child care are surging to the top of the nation's political debate as Democrats and Republicans seek to win votes and advance policies to address the economic struggles of families trying to raise children and hold jobs.
A high-profile White House "working families" summit Monday will focus on issues such as child care, paid family leave and equal pay between men and women. Politicians in both parties are also rolling out new parental leave and child-care legislation amid predictions such issues will be prominent in the 2014 midterm and 2016 presidential campaigns.
Paid leave and child care are emerging as centerpiece issues for many Democrats, part of their broader attempt to portray Republicans as hostile to issues important to women. President Barack Obama said last week "we probably have as bad a child-care safety net as any developed country," and Monday he is expected to seek commitments from companies to do more on parental leave and flexibility for workers with families.
Potential 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton this month endorsed guaranteed paid leave, although she said it would take time before the federal government could move forward on the idea. Clinton allies said the issue would be a central plank of any future campaign.
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Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing for additional tax breaks for working parents and other family friendly proposals in hopes of attracting support from independents and Democrats.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced a bill last week TO allow parents to take a deduction for a home office even it if has a baby crib in it.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., another likely presidential candidate, has signed on to legislation drafted by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., promoting a child-care tax break.
Paul said by email the legislation "would give more people access to child-care so they can work or seek job training."
Gillibrand, one of Capitol Hill's top advocates for legislation to aid working parents, said in an interview: "It's something that a libertarian and a progressive can agree on."
At stake are tens of millions of votes from women and men coping with a rapidly changing economy. Women are increasingly the breadwinners, making the costs of unpaid leave more burdensome. Just a fraction of low-income families have access to affordable child-care options, while day-care costs eat up an increasingly large portion of middle-class workers' pay.
"In terms of family flexibility, there has been no policy change in 20 years at the federal level," said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, which is co-hosting the White House event. "I think this is truly one of the issues where the country has moved farther and faster than the political discourse."
But huge political barriers stand in the way of new legislation, including resistance to greater federal intervention among Republicans and business groups and a paucity of major proposals from Democrats.
Obama said Saturday in his weekly address paid leave "should be available to everyone" but he has not publicly backed the leading national paid-leave proposal, which would offer the benefit at two-thirds of a worker's salary, up to $4,000 a month. It would likely cost more than $20 billion a year and be financed through a 0.2-percentage-point increase in payroll taxes, which advocates say equals $72.04 a year for the average female worker.
The president has proposed $5 million in federal funding to support initiatives in states such as California, Rhode Island and New Jersey that offer leave to workers to care for new babies or ailing relatives. He also backs a proposal for universal preschool for 4-year-olds from moderate- and low-income families paid for by a hike in cigarettes taxes.
Congress has ignored the idea.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., who is drafting a bill on workplace flexibility, cautioned against the federal government going too far.
"We always need to recognize that not every family's the same," she said. "I don't believe a top-down mandate from the federal government is going to address those individual needs."
Many business leaders argue any new requirement to provide workers with family related benefits will demand cost-cutting elsewhere.
"The Chamber believes employers should be able to design their leave and benefit packages as appropriate for their employees and their markets," said U.S. Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes. "Imposing mandates could mean that something else will have to be cut back."
But for many Democrats, family benefits are a new rallying cry. Emily's List, which supports Democratic women who favor abortion rights, provided its candidates with a tool kit advising them how to talk about paid leave as part of their campaigns.
Many proposals are also percolating at the local level. San Diego may have an initiative on the ballot this fall to raise the minimum wage and provide earned sick days to all employees, an idea backed by two City Council candidates. Washington state Rep. Tana Senn, D, identifies sick leave as a "no-brainer" policy on her campaign literature, especially for those caring for aging parents as well as young children. Maryland gubernatorial hopeful Heather Mizeur, D, has made paid family leave a plank in her women's economic platform.
Still, some advocates, such as Urban Institute senior fellow Gina Adams, say such policies remain a hard sell in difficult economic times.
"There are societal costs to not creating workplaces that are supportive to families with young children," she said. "But the problem is we don't see the costs right now because they're long-term costs. The costs are very hard for the employer to see."
In providing paid leave or child care, the United States lags behind all rich countries and many less wealthy ones. Since 1993, the United States has required large employers to offer up to three months of unpaid leave, but the country is only one of a handful -- Papua New Guinea being another -- that lack any requirement for paid leave.
"When these policies are voluntary on the part of employers, what tends to happen is that good benefits go with good wages," said Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University School of Social Work.
Betsey Stevenson, a top White House economist who has helped focus attention on paid leave, said making real change is going to require a lot more work on the state and national level. She said it is possible now that the financial crisis and recession are in the past.
"All the energy was focused on how do we end this Great Recession as soon as possible. . . . We're coming out of that crisis right now," she said. "I don't think anyone thinks giving paid leave to all Americans is going to be through an all-volunteer system."