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Ann O'Leary

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Is It Over Already? The Debate About Women and Work Lasted Less Than a Week

Posted: 04/17/2012 12:57 pm

Wow.

So many readers of my last blog post thought I was endorsing Rick Santorum, his policy prescriptions and all the anti-gay and anti-women statements he has made when I wrote that I'd miss him in the presidential contest.

Not at all.

As I wrote, I don't agree with his policy prescriptions, but I wish that we had people in both presidential campaigns who are forcing our country to confront the hard issues of how we raise our children and support our families at a time of growing single-parent households and growing childhood poverty.

Case in point: The inane media debate over who works harder -- stay-at-home mothers or mothers who work outside the home -- and the fact that less than a week later, it seems to be over.

Remember how this started: Mitt Romney deferred a question from the audience about women struggling in this economy, saying that his wife, Ann, has been hearing more from women than he has, creating the impression that as the Republican's likely presidential nominee, he didn't have an independent thought on the matter.

Hilary Rosen then stepped in and threw gasoline on the long-smoldering debate about the value of stay-at-home moms versus "working" mothers, by suggesting Ann Romney was hardly an expert on the issue. President Obama's response? All mothers should be respected and presidential spouses should be off limits (even when they are out there campaigning).

So, does this mean Romney and Obama are now debating what we should do to enable more women to stay at home? Are they debating how to better support women who must, or choose to, enter the workforce? Are they debating what we should do to provide greater economic security for women who still face a pay gap in our country?

No, no, and no.

They are trying to get away from these issues as fast as possible while their surrogates are out there talking about who values mothers more.

To be sure, President Obama has released a report on his accomplishments in supporting working women. And there are parts of it that do help women in their dual role as breadwinners and caregivers. The most significant are improved economic security through greater access to health insurance and increases in federal child care funding for more children and families.

But the report ignores a fundamental problem that our country is facing -- how we support low and middle income single mothers and married mothers who must work to provide income for their families while providing care for their children. Consider these three facts:

  • Twenty-four percent of children in the United States are raised in single-parent families. On international tests of reading, U.S. children in single-parent households score 23 points lower than their peers from two-parent families, even after accounting for socio-economic background. Yet other countries with similarly large populations of single-parent households, such as Chile, Switzerland, Portugal and Austria, don't see significant differences in the educational performance of children from single-parent and two-parent families.
  • Both parents work full time or more in more than half, or 51 percent, of all middle-income families, but have no access to subsidized child care offered to low-income families and little access to the type of workplace flexibility offered to professional mothers and fathers.
  • The majority of working single mothers -- 62 percent -- work in low-wage jobs, such as retail, service and administrative. These are the jobs that are least likely to provide time off for pregnancy and recovery from child birth, let alone paid sick days or paid family leave to care for an ill child.

So have President Obama and Mitt Romney offered up solutions to these problems?

Candidate Obama in 2008 suggested that he'd fight for paid sick days and paid family leave, but his list of accomplishments on workplace flexibility merely note that his administration wrote a report on the issue and hosted conversations around the country. More than conversations and reports, we need legislation and an insistence that we try to get in line with the rest of the developed world in offering paid family leave.

Also, we need to ensure that stay-at-home mothers receive credit toward Social Security so that they are not destitute in their senior years for staying out of the workforce to care for their family.

Mitt Romney? Well, he has said little other than he thinks low-income women should "learn the dignity of work" and that he'd support providing them with more child care support to do so.

The time has come to address these significant problems. Here's one approach: Kristen Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder of Moms-Rising, a group that fights for policies that help mothers and families, provides a great "to do" list for our Presidential candidates.

I have a few ideas for the presidential candidates, as well, summarized in a report released last week by the Center for American Progress endorsing a policy package that provides real support for both working mothers and stay-at-home mothers. With an accompanying report authored by my colleagues Heather Boushey and Sarah Jane Glynn, we recommend updating Social Security to include paid family leave to allow women to be out of the workforce for short periods of time to deal with the most pressing family issues, including the birth of a child, a seriously ill family member or a worker's own serious illness. And I recommend coupling this proposal with Social Security caregiving credits that would allow women to earn credits toward retirement security even while staying at home to care for their families. These policies truly value women's work, both in the home and in the labor force.

It's time to stop talking about who cares more about mothers and start putting policies in place that value women's work, no matter where it's carried out. That's going to help children derive the benefits of time and attention from their parents, far more than cynical debates that serve little purpose other than to score political points.

 
 
 

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