Democrats and Republicans both talk a great game on family values, but when it comes to pro-family policies, they offer little
In Tuesday’s presidential debate, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will claim they have opposing visions for America’s future. But for all the differences they will put forward, both presidential campaigns have something in common: they are long on pro-family rhetoric, but short on pro-family policies. If the campaigns are serious about getting more women voters in their corner, it’s time to step it up.
Case in point: neither Romney nor Obama has offered a single policy idea on the campaign trail that would ease the burden of working families who are juggling demanding work schedules with care for children and elderly parents. And neither the presidential nor vice-presidential debates even mentioned the economic stresses that women, in particular, are facing today.
Instead, in August, both party conventions shone the spotlight on candidates’ wives, who made emotional appeals about family life. Ann Romney spoke of “the working moms who love their jobs but would like to work just a little less to spend more time with the kids.” Michelle Obama recalled her husband’s mother turning to her own parents for help in raising her children.
Yet, neither mentioned the value of public support for the services that millions of families need, but cannot afford: high-quality, out-of-home care for young children, after-school programs for older children and long-term care services for family members coping with disability, or with the frailties that come with aging. Neither mentioned the need for laws that would enable millions of workers to reconcile the responsibilities of working for pay and caregiving at home: paid parental leave, paid sick leave, tax credits that could help support family care, or anti-discrimination protections for working women and men with caregiving responsibilities at home. Neither mentioned the many paid care workers who earn inadequate wages and lack their own workplace rights and benefits.
Women voters respond to messages about economic security, experts say. And with Romney beginning to close in on Obama’s lead among women, the competition to secure their support is getting fierce. It’s a perfect opening for serious policy proposals around caregiving, work-life balance and family policy.
In principle, differences between Democrats and Republicans are stark. The 2012 Democratic party platform emphasizes the importance of walking the walk when it comes to family values – and underscores the value of caregiving at home, as well as in the marketplace. The platform calls for passing the Healthy Families Act, which would provide paid sick leave, and broadening the Family and Medical Leave Act to grant more unpaid leave for caregiving. By contrast, the Republican party platform calls for cuts in public spending and fails to specify any particular tax cuts aimed at helping parents or other caregivers.
But in practice, these political differences have been rendered almost irrelevant by a stalemate over deficit reduction.
One way to break that stalemate is to make a stronger case for caring about care. Much of the money and time devoted to young children and adults who need long-term assistance represents a family necessity. As a result, cuts in programs aimed to help families may reduce public debt, but they increase private debt. In many cases, short-run savings come at the cost of lower long-run productivity.
Further complicating the picture, the quality of care that Americans are able to provide their families varies dramatically depending on household income. The affluent enjoy more workplace flexibility and are able to purchase high-quality childcare and elder care services, while low-income families often linger on waiting lists or rely on public programs such as Medicaid. Middle-income families frequently face the most limited options because they lack the resources to buy private care, yet earn too much to qualify for public programs.
And while both parties have repeatedly reminded us of America’s exceptionalism, when it comes to care, our country is exceptional for all the wrong reasons. Out of 20 high-income countries:
• Only the US has no national policy of paid maternity leave in the wake of birth or adoption. As a result, millions of American women are forced choose between returning to paid work before it is feasible, or taking a leave and absorbing an income loss when they need that income most.
• Only the US has no national policy giving workers a right to paid sick days. As a result, many employees routinely go to work when they or their children are ill.
• The US invests the smallest share of public spending in early childhood education and care, constraining parents’ employment options and leaving countless children with inadequate childcare.
• Only the US has no national policy guaranteeing workers a minimum number of paid days off each year, resulting in our nation having among the longest annual employment hours in the world.
Those skeptical of European examples point to the debt crisis in Greece and Spain. But most of the countries in northern and western Europe that provide generous support for caregiving are doing as well, or better, than the US in economic terms. Countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway all have much lower debt-to-GDP ratios than the US does.
Our country needs a national care policy that would help support families wherever they live, and whatever their income. Americans nationwide are standing up and demanding an audience from political leaders and policy-makers. And the Caring Economy Campaign has crafted a set of questions for the presidential candidates that directly asks them what policies they propose to help support both paid and unpaid care.
We need to ask the candidates again and again until we get clear answers. If we don’t, we will never know how much they really care. And many women’s votes will remain up for grabs.
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