02/18/2014 02:24 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2014

Creating Opportunities for American Families to Succeed

In the last few years, millions of American families have had to sacrifice and endure a prolonged and damaging recession. More than ever before, families rely on dual incomes just to make ends meet. In 1960, only 10 percent of families relied on mothers as the primary or sole source of income. Today, that number is 40 percent. Our current system simply does not reflect the realities of our 21st century economy.

As two of only a handful of U.S. Senators with young children, we understand what it's like to be working parents with family responsibilities. It's not easy. And too many middle class families around the country are struggling because the system is rigged against them.

That's why we are urging our colleagues to take up legislation that comprises what we call the "Opportunity Plan." This five-plank agenda focuses on the biggest issues facing millions of families across the country who are struggling to succeed in an outdated system. Our plan would create paid family and medical leave insurance, raise the minimum wage, take action on income inequality, expand access to quality affordable child care, and establish universal pre-K.

America is the only high income nation without a paid family leave program. This means that if you or a family member gets sick, there is no guarantee that you can take the time you need to take care of yourself or your loved one, leaving already vulnerable families in the position of making hard decisions in cases of illness. Unsurprisingly, women are most affected by this, as they are more likely than men to have to take this type of leave.

That is why we introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. This legislation will create a self-sustaining paid family medical leave program for up to 12 weeks of paid leave. Frankly, no one should have to make the impossible decision between caring for a sick child and putting dinner on the table.

Often, even when perfectly healthy, families are struggling. Many households are barely able to make ends meet because of the current insufficient federal minimum wage rate. The fact is that that wage is completely unreflective of current family economics.

This is especially true for families with two income earners. Currently, almost two out of three minimum wage workers are women. By raising the minimum wage, millions of workers and their families would be raised out of poverty. That is why we are supporting Senator Tom Harkin's Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would increase the minimum wage to $10.10/hour over the next three years. If the minimum wage were more livable, millions of families could move into the middle class.

We must also make serious advances when it comes to equal pay for equal work. In 2012, women were still, on average, making 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, which is a gross injustice and not at all reflective of the work done by women all across this country every day. By passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, we can empower women to more effectively combat wage discrimination. Families across the country would be directly affected and their lives improved if we were to make inroads in closing the gender wage gap. In fact, our entire economy would reap the benefits of paycheck equality, because if women earned the same amount as men, America's GDP could grow by as much as 4 percent.

Along with a livable wage, many parents are desperate for quality affordable child care. We must provide single parents, working parents and different types of families with greater flexibility in the workplace, including access to quality affordable child care. Our agenda would give families the option of deducting the cost of child care expenses as a business expense, in addition to expanding the Child and Dependent Care Credit to allow low income families with little or no tax liability to have access to a fully refundable tax credit to help mitigate the cost of care. By helping families afford child care, we are helping them to succeed in the workplace as well.

Early child care leads us into the next plank of our Opportunities Plan, which is Universal Pre-K. As studies have shown over and over again, early education is a determining factor for success later in life. It not only prepares children to thrive in college, but it also allows working mothers to remain on the job, earn a paycheck, and contribute to our national economy. It's a win for all members of the family.

That is why we are supporting the PRE-K Act, which was introduced by our colleague and Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono. This legislation would establish and foster partnerships, increase the number of high quality early childhood educators, improve the student-to-teacher ratios in pre-school, and increase the hours per day a family would have access to education programs. Investment in Universal Pre-K would then have immediate benefits, as well as being a long-term investment in our youngest students.

These five legislative initiatives would support working women and families and help to ensure our future economic security. It's time for Congress to act to accommodate the new make-up of American families. Women now make up nearly half of our nation's workforce. It's a no-brainer. The time is right for our government to change the work environment to accommodate the changes in the workforce. In fact, if we want our middle-class families to succeed, it's imperative.