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New Hope For Women and Girls From Washington, D.C.

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On Wednesday, President Obama signed an executive order creating the first-ever White House Council on Women and Girls. The Council will be charged with creating among all federal agencies a coordinated approach to the challenges faced by women and girls. In its first year, the Council will focus on women's economic security, work-family policies, preventing violence against women and improving access to healthcare for women and their families.

The creation of this council is deeply significant. It is an important acknowledgment not only that women and girls face persistent economic and cultural barriers to full equity, but also that women and girls play a key role in ensuring our society's well-being. By improving the lives of women, we improve the lives of their children, families and communities -- and ultimately the country.

The Council alone, however, cannot achieve its goals. It will require the coordination and combined efforts of Congress and all federal agencies. It will also require that advocates and activists who care deeply about women and families push the Council and the Obama administration in constructive ways to ensure that those women who are most in need have a voice. The very creation of the Council is a good sign that the administration will listen.

Women's Foundation of California and our partners in the Women's Economic Security Collaborative are ready to help the Council off to a strong start. We have decades of experience and research to support the importance of investing in women, and we know how to do it effectively. We hope to have the opportunity to advise the new White House Council and work with federal agencies to make the greatest impact.

While the announcement of the White House Council on Women and Girls was historic, the President's release of his budget plan two weeks earlier was an equally important step toward supporting women and their families.

The President's budget proposal includes both short-term and long-term investments to support working families, many of which are headed by women. Millions of these families are now living on the brink of poverty or sinking deeper into it as a result of the ever-worsening recession the country faces.

Many elements of the President's budget are crucial to women and girls.

First and foremost is the investment in significant healthcare reform. Under the plan, the government would set aside more than $630 billion over the next ten years to help finance health reform. The President did not offer many details about what health reform would look like, but instead convened stakeholders at the White House, established guiding principles for reform and asked Congress to craft a plan that is in line with his budget.

It will not be easy to achieve comprehensive, affordable healthcare care reform, but the commitment of funds proposed in the President's budget is an essential first step. Because women pay more on average for health coverage, need more health care services over the course of their lives and make the majority of health-related decisions for their families, this is an absolutely crucial issue for women and girls.

The budget proposal also increases funding for childcare by $2 billion. Affordable childcare will allow millions of parents -- especially moms -- to go to work to support their families knowing that their children are safe and well-cared for. In addition, the budget would fully fund nutrition programs for women and children and create a nurse home visitation program for first-time mothers, which has proven positive effects for family health and child development.

Economic supports for unemployed and low-income workers in the proposed budget are also vital for women's ability to support themselves and their families. The president proposed to make permanent the recent expansions to the unemployment insurance system, which allow lower-wage and part-time workers to access benefits. Women represent the majority of low-wage and part-time workers in the economy, including 68% of the minimum wage workforce, so this provision helps to create gender equity in the unemployment safety net. Making Work Pay, a refundable tax credit for working families making up to about $75,000 a year per person, would also become permanent.

The fight in Washington, D.C. over President Obama's budget plan is sure to be long, tough and nasty at times. Yet it is essential that people get involved and stay involved in this battle to ensure that the pieces of the budget that are most critical to women and families survive. Many of us live in states -- California in my case -- where our state budgets are dismal and deficits are only growing. As the states' capacity to help families and the economy come out of the recession diminishes, the importance of the federal government increases. In short, we need this federal budget; women and girls need it.

The formulation of the federal budget is the first step in the process of creating new policies that address the needs of women and girls. The passage of the president's proposed budget, with its core priorities intact, will create the foundation on which the White House Council on Women and Girls -- and we as citizens and advocates -- can build a better future for women and their families.

Judy Patrick is President and CEO of the Women's Foundation of California.