I grew up in a suburb of Boston, the child of two immigrants who had come from India decades earlier. We lived in a house in Bedford, Massachusetts, a quintessential middle-class town. But when I was 5, my parents got divorced and my dad left. My mother was on her own. Having never held a job before, she faced the choice of going back to India or going on welfare to support her two young children. In India, we would have been stigmatized; no one got divorced there in the 1970s. She knew that the children of a divorced woman would have limited life opportunities in India.
So we stayed. We were on welfare. We were on food stamps. And we received Section 8 housing vouchers to help pay the rent. Thanks to a new law in Massachusetts, we were able to use those vouchers to move into an apartment in Bedford and remain in our town’s good public schools. My mom eventually got a job as a travel agent and later became a contracts administrator for a defense company. By the time I was 11, she was able to buy her own house in Bedford.
Looking back, I know that whatever success I’ve achieved in life is thanks to my mother’s tenacity and her commitment to giving each of her children a better life. But I also know that she was able to do what she did because of a social safety net that allowed her to get back on her feet. She was lucky to live in a country that says just because you’re down, it doesn’t mean you’re out.
Yet today, our country’s commitment to this basic creed is being put to the test. It’s harder than ever for many Americans to move up into the middle class and achieve financial security. Too many Americans, particularly women, are struggling to balance their responsibilities at work and at home. And too many women toil away in jobs that don’t pay a living wage and don’t offer proper benefits. As a result, too many women are living on the brink, unable to achieve their full potential.
These issues are critical to women, but they aren’t just “women’s issues.” By addressing them, we strengthen our families, our economy, and our entire country. That’s why as the President of the Center for American Progress, or CAP, I work every day to promote policies that will support women like my mother, and ensure that all women are able to give their children the same opportunities my mother gave me.
It’s been nearly five years since CAP and The Shriver Report first collaborated on The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, which examined how the rise of women in the workplace is changing the way we work and live. That first report helped spark a national discussion about this profound transformation in American society, and over the past few years, I’ve been inspired by the growing wave of energy and interest in these issues. In the political sphere, a record number of women were elected to the Senate in 2012, and there is enormous excitement about the prospect of finally electing a woman president. In the media, there’s been a vigorous public conversation about women’s leadership in the workplace. And in the policy realm, there have been powerful calls for new investments in preschool and child care at the national level.
Now is the time to build on this momentum. We must address the needs of financially vulnerable women to ensure that all women have the stability and security they need to succeed. That’s why I’m thrilled that CAP is once again able to collaborate with Maria Shriver on this new report, A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink.
It’s true that American women have come a long way. Yet millions are living on the brink, struggling to achieve economic security while also caring for their families. All of the evidence shows that women are much more economically vulnerable than men. For instance, a recent study found that most women probably couldn’t come up with $2,000 in 30 days to deal with an emergency. In fact, nearly 70 percent of single mothers and their children are either living in poverty or teetering on the edge. Indeed, women are three times more likely than men to be raising a family on their own, without a partner to pitch in an extra paycheck or parenting time. For women like my mother who struggle as single moms, the safety net often turns out to be a lifeline.
And although most mothers now work outside the home, few jobs provide the paid leave time and flexibility that workers need to be both breadwinners and caregivers. When I was in elementary school, there was no parent at home; luckily, I had an older brother who took care of me after school. But in today’s world, parents can’t even rely on half measures like that. As a result, women and men both face constant conflicts between work and family. These conflicts are especially tough for women, because we still spend more than twice as much time as men caring for children, and more time caring for elderly family members. These care responsibilities force many women to cycle in and out of the workforce, which reduces our pay and makes it harder for us to move up the career ladder.
I learned firsthand about the importance of workplace flexibility when I was raising two young children while working as the policy director on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. I have a wonderful husband who truly believes in co-parenting, but I was able to be successful in my high-pressure job only because I also had an amazing boss who created a culture that respected family responsibilities. That led to some remarkable moments: I remember changing my son’s diapers during morning conference calls, but I also remember Hillary reorganizing her schedule so I could go to my daughter’s pre-K graduation. Because I worked in a place committed to family-friendly policies, I was able to make it home for dinner most evenings and tuck my children in for bed, before working late into the night. We both knew that what matters is not the exact hours you’re at the office, but whether you get the job done. She understood that I wasn’t just her employee, but I was also a mother with a family. And she never once gave me less responsibility as a result.
Because of the flexibility I had on the campaign, I was able to grow professionally, and wasn’t forced to get off my career track when my children were young. Now I’m in a leadership position where I can set the workplace policies for my own organization, as well as push for policies to empower more women. But knowing the right policies isn’t everything. Tackling the challenges of financial insecurity and work-life conflict will also require kindling a national conversation that places women at the forefront of public debate.
When it comes to solutions that improve the lives of all women, there is no single silver bullet. Women can use a variety of strategies to better navigate personal and professional challenges. And businesses can provide the flexibility and benefits we need to balance work and care responsibilities, while boosting their own bottom lines.
But as the president of a public policy think tank, I know we also need to put new laws on the books. The United States’ workplace and child care policies lag far behind those in other countries. We’re the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee mothers paid leave to care for a new child, and we’re one of only a few countries that doesn’t guarantee workers a right to earn paid sick days. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most lower-income women don’t have access to these benefits. We also lag behind other developed countries when it comes to how much we invest in child care and preschool. As a result, low-income mothers often must choose between paying out of pocket for expensive and often substandard private programs, or opting out of work, which can diminish their earning power down the road.
The Center for American Progress has proposed specific ideas to tackle these challenges, including a plan to ensure that every child has access to high-quality preschool. Another plan, called the FAMILY Act, would create a national family and medical leave insurance program that would allow both women and men to take up to 12 weeks of leave with partial wage replacement after the birth or adoption of a child, to provide care for a seriously ill family member, or to recover from their own serious illness. Other promising proposals include the Healthy Families Act, enabling workers to earn up to seven paid sick days a year, and the Working Families Flexibility Act, which would give workers the right to request more flexible work schedules without fear of retaliation. It is our hope that this unique collaboration between CAP and Maria Shriver not only ignites a national conversation, but also spurs real movement on a core set of policy issues.
Policy solutions are critical for progress. But at the end of the day, I know that achieving long-term policy change will also require shifting our culture and attitudes. In order to reform our laws and institutions, women first must recognize that we aren’t in this alone; so many of the daily challenges that each of us experiences are also experienced by millions of other women. Today, single mothers face the same struggles my mother faced in the 1970s in Bedford, Massachusetts. As we recognize these connections and commonalities, we will see that these shared challenges aren’t inevitable—they are the result of choices that we make as a society.
Once upon a time, people thought illness was purely a personal problem, something we each had to deal with on our own. But now we know better. Now we know that we don’t have to accept a world in which you’re thrown into bankruptcy by a medical emergency, or denied insurance coverage because you’re sick. Now we all will have access to health care coverage.
And the same is true for the millions of women living on the brink. Endemic economic insecurity is not inevitable. Work-life conflict is not inevitable. Inadequate and unaffordable child care is not inevitable. These aren’t just concerns for each mother or each family. They are national concerns. Because a great country like ours should allow everyone to live to their full potential, and no one should have to sacrifice being a good parent in order to make ends meet.
Americans are now awakening to this realization. We are beginning to understand that things need not be as they have been. And once we are truly roused, our leaders will have to sit up and take notice. I have no doubt that we possess the power to push our way back from the brink.
Neera Tanden is the President of the Center for American Progress.