In the wake of President Obama's major jobs address to the joint session of Congress, the president and key members of the administration have been speaking around the country to convey the importance of the American Jobs Act. Obama's trusted senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett, traveled to San Francisco this past week to address the first ever Women and the Economy Summit and to speak at various political events in the area. I was given the opportunity to talk one-on-one with Jarrett about the American Jobs Act as well as other important topics related to women and the economy.
As we talked, Jarrett emphasized how each of the provisions in the president's plan have been supported by Republicans in the past, yet she clearly understands that the political landscape now is changing. For women, who are now at greater risk of becoming poverty-stricken than men, Jarrett is particularly concerned. Yet women also hold the key to growth. "Women now make up half the workforce in the United States. We are the ones who are growing small businesses... starting new companies... women are graduating with a higher percentage than men for the first time."
Unfortunately, just handing women loans for starting businesses isn't the only answer. Jarrett emphasized the need for true pay equity. Not only important for the sake of equality, with two-thirds of American households either run by single mothers or dual-income families, it's important for women to be reasonably compensated for the future of families and children. She spoke of her own experience as a single mom and how many times she felt she was just "hanging on by my fingertips." She also acknowledged that she was fortunate, always having employers who understood her daughter came first. Many women are not that lucky.
"A lot of women can't afford that because they are stuck, and particularly at the low income level, you are vulnerable." So what do we do about that? I asked. "We need to have champions on behalf of those women and we need to put a spotlight on who's doing well and we also vigorously be prepared to be critical of those who are not treating their employees well." That brings us to workplace flexibility.
Given her background on hospital boards and in business, it made sense Jarrett should understand the importance of this issue -- not just as a parent, but from a health and wellness perspective -- but the proof came in the passion in her voice and the sparkle in her eyes as she spoke. She understands it's a business win, not just a personal win for the workers who have flexible opportunities.
I decided to ask my tough question -- how do we convince companies and government agencies to develop, adopt and take advantage of policies that create, build and encourage workplace flexibility? i.e. how do we actually achieve it?
"We have to arm people with the statistics. So for employers, when we show them the data on how productivity has actually increased by having flexibility, they begin to understand: this could be good for business. We should go one step further and we should give them case studies of examples of where flexibility has worked in other comparable work environments so that they don't feel as though they were inventing the wheel and starting something for the first time."
Going back to the American Jobs Act, I asked for more detail on what she felt was of greatest importance in the package. Not expecting she would choose favorites, she did speak about some of the provisions and why they're crucial. She also emphasized that each element in the plan previously had been supported by Republicans. She emphasized the small business tax credit, infrastructure, and building adequate schools where children can have technology and science labs to educate them to become competitive in the global marketplace. She also spoke about providing jobs for first responders, veterans and school teachers.
This led well into my final question about education. Given the deadpan response of Republicans during the president's speech, I asked her how the White House was going to get that part of the proposal through and fight for teachers. "This bill will provide funding for 280,000 teachers whose jobs are at risk as a result of the cutbacks that state and local government are faced with across the country." Regarding the 35,000 schools in the plan, "every community in our country has schools that are in need of renovation."
Jarrett pointed out how President Obama emphasized the choice we have between supporting veterans, first responders and teachers or continuing tax loopholes for oil companies or hedge funds. What's clear to the White House, she said, is "where the vast majority of American people come down on this issue." "We're going to cast our lot with them."