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Work and Family Are Middle-Class Issues

Middle Class Task Force Releases First Annual Report

SOURCE: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a White House Middle Task Force on Middle Class Families meeting at the Center for American Progress in November 2009.

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President Barack Obama created the Middle Class Task Force as one of his first acts in office and appointed Vice President Joe Biden to chair it. The Task Force’s mission is to ensure that the “economic challenges facing [t]he American middle class … always remain front and center in the work of the Administration,” and it released its first annual report last week on February 26, 2010.

The report acknowledges that creating good jobs is critical to middle-class families’ economic stability, but focuses on the long-term challenges that pre-date the recession and will likely remain pressings issues even after we get unemployment back down. These challenges include balancing work and family, college access and affordability, and retirement security.

We applaud the inclusion of balancing work and caregiving as a foundational tenet of middle-class security. As we said in The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, the day-to-day challenges coping with conflict between a job and care responsibilities defines the reality of most families now that women make up fully half of today’s payrolls and two-thirds of families with children are headed by two working parents or a single working parent.

We agree that now is the time to focus on these challenges, even in the midst of a difficult labor market. Men have lost 7 in 10 jobs since the recession began in December 2007, and millions of families are now relying on a woman’s earnings to make ends meet. The reality is that more than six workers are vying for every job opening, and our society cannot afford to let those with care responsibilities lose a job because of the need to pick up a sick child or attend to their family.

The administration is following up on this commitment to address work-family conflict in this year’s budget. The president’s fiscal year 2011 budget more than doubles the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit for middle-class families making under $85,000 a year, which ensures that almost every family making less than $115,000 will see an increase in their benefit. It also provides an extra $1.6 billion in funding for the Child Care and Development fund—the largest one-year increase—and increases funding for programs supporting caregivers.

The budget also addresses the fact that the United States is one of the only industrialized countries that doesn’t require employers to provide paid family leave by establishing a $50 million State Paid Leave Fund within the Department of Labor. Each of these budget items will require congressional approval, and we hope that Congress will also see the importance of paving the way for economic security for all middle-class families—and those struggling to get into the middle class.

The Task Force calls for the creation of the first-ever Equal Pay Task Force, which will ensure that equal pay laws are enforced around the country. This is an important step. Nearly five decades after the Equal Pay Act was passed, full-time, full-year women workers still earn only 77 cents to the dollar of their male colleagues. The House passed the Paycheck Fairness Act over a year ago, but the Senate has to vote.

Of course, the administration does not need to wait for Congress to act. The Task Force’s report indicates that the administration will be finalizing new recommendations for rules around federal contracting. We hope these rules include encouraging employers to provide paid sick days on par with the federal workforce at 13 days a year.

We are encouraged by the substance behind the Task Force’s report. It indicates that the administration is as Vice President Biden said during the event to release the report, “show me your budget and I’ll show you your priorities.”

But there is more to do, as the Task Force acknowledges. We need to update our basic labor standards to account for the fact that most workers also have family responsibilities. This will require instituting predictable and flexible workplace schedules to ensure that workers have access to paid family and medical leave, and establishing the right to paid sick days for all workers.

We also need to ensure that workers with care responsibilities, including pregnant women, do not experience discrimination. And we need to do more to improve our knowledge about family responsive workplace policies by collecting national data on work-life policies offered by employers and analyzing the effectiveness of existing state and local policies

The Task Force quotes Heather Boushey as acknowledging that none of this will be easy: “[t]aking seriously the challenges facing middle-class families means taking a long, hard look at the reality of their day-to-day lives—the dual-earner families, the single-parent families and the one-in-five traditional families—and adapting to this reality by ensuring that every worker can be a good family caregiver, as well as a good employee.” We are encouraged that this administration thinks it’s time to begin to face the facts and support families.

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Heather Boushey is Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress and Ann O’Leary is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

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