In Focus

Jan 22, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

President Obama’s Two-Generation Strategy: Right Package, Right Time

President’s Obama’s domestic priorities outlined in Tuesday’s State of the Union address encompass a thoughtful and timely package—not simply a laundry list—to help poor and low-income families lift themselves into the middle class.  CLASP has long advocated for these priorities and strategies because we think that, taken together, they support families and add up to a far greater impact together than any of them could have alone.  We are delighted to see the president’s approach reflects this same judgment.

The president’s proposals on community college, child care, paid leave, and tax credits embrace a two-generation approach to addressing poverty that recognizes the importance of supporting both parents and children. Two-generation policies reflect strong research findings that the well-being of parents is inextricably linked to children’s social-emotional, physical, and economic well-being. At the same time, parents’ ability to succeed in school and the workplace is substantially affected by how well their children are doing. Because more than 70 percent of poor children live in families with at least one worker, it is essential that we address the needs of both children and their parents in thinking about the workplace as well as the home.  And 26% of community college students are parents–a policy opportunity for helping both generations that CLASP focused on in a panel discussion at a public forum last summer featuring experts and practitioners from the worlds of postsecondary education and early care and education. 

CLASP believes the president’s focus on the following initiatives is directly responsive to the needs of today’s struggling families:

  • Free community college. In describing his plan for community college, President Obama said, “Forty percent of our college students choose community college. Some are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job. Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market. Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt.”   Between 2008 and 2012, the proportion of college students who had low incomes rose dramatically, from 40 percent of undergraduate students with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level in 2008, to 51 percent in 2012. Without income to cover basic living expenses, these students will most likely have to work more to cover direct and indirect college costs, increasing time to degree completion.  The president’s plan to pay for community college tuition would help cover the overall cost of attendance, allowing low-income students to use some of their Pell grants to pay for books, transportation, and living expenses.
  • Child Care.  As President Obama forcefully stated, “It’s not a nice-to-have — it’s a must-have. It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.” When families are able to access quality child care, children are better prepared for success in life and parents are more likely to succeed on the job as they gain peace of mind from knowing their child is well cared for and thriving. Together, these two goals are critical to our nation’s economic competitiveness now and in the future. Moreover, bipartisan support late last year for the reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant underscores that this issue has traction.
  • Paid Leave.  Millions of Americans are currently losing wages and jobs in order to care for their families and their health.  Almost all (95 percent) workers in the lowest 25 percent of wage earners have no paid family leave, and 70 percent of these same workers have no access to earned sick days. The Administration’s call for Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, federal earned sick days legislation, and proposed investments in state-level paid family and medical leave programs demonstrate a keen awareness of working families’ needs. In addition to helping families, these actions will create a more effective workforce—improving the bottom lines of businesses and driving economic growth.
  • Tax reform. In another strong signal in support of working families, President Obama stated the importance of “helping folks afford child care, college, health care, a home, retirement [by] lowering the taxes of working families, and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year.” His strategy? Strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, both of which been shown to effectively help lift families out of poverty, as well as expanding the American Opportunity Tax Credit for higher education costs, the tax credit for families paying for child care, and creating a new credit to help two-earner families with work expenses.

We applaud this strategic vision that offers a ladder up to the middle class for hard-working poor and low-income families by addressing the needs of both children and their parents.  Achieving the American dream by helping struggling hard-working families improve their skills, take care of their children, and better their and their children’s prospects ought to be something we can all agree on.  It’s the right package at the right time.


Jan 16, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

To Celebrate MLK, Ensure Labor Protections Extend to Workers of Color

By Liz Ben-Ishai

Economic justice was a critical part of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lifelong pursuit of racial equity. King fought for the rights of all workers, growing the labor movement through his advocacy for worker protections. King decried the poverty wages of  African American workers and promoted fair compensation and working conditions as crucial to a just society.

While King was outspoken about raising labor standards, he  also recognized that people of color were often  excluded when standards improved. In a March 1966 speech, King noted that less than half of workers of color were covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which includes such protections as minimum wage and overtime. Unfortunately, this legacy of exclusion extends far beyond King’s life. It was only a few weeks ago that home care workers—who comprise the fastest growing occupation in our economy and are disproportionately women of color—became eligible for overtime and minimum wage protections as a result of new FLSA regulations.

Even when workers are covered by labor standards, their ability to benefit from protections widely varies. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the only federal law that helps workers meet both their work and family obligations, provides some workers with unpaid, job-protected leave to recover from serious illness, care for a sick family member, or care for a newly arrived child. This important legislation passed more than two decades ago, and millions have benefitted. However, a new report  reinforces existing evidence showing that many workers are not covered by the law. It also demonstrates that among those who are covered, many cannot afford to take unpaid leave.

Workers of color and their families are mostly likely to face this damaging exclusion.  A recent report from—a project of The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis—found that among working parents, 40 percent of Blacks, 42 percent of Asian or Pacific Islanders, 46 percent of Whites, and 50 percent of Hispanics are ineligible for FMLA leave. Disparities are greater for those in lower-wage jobs with few benefits; among working parents in low-quality jobs, more than half of Blacks and 60 percent of Hispanics are ineligible. Workers may be ineligible because they work for small firms or have not been with their employer for a sufficient length of time, among other exclusions.

But it’s not just these categorical exclusions that warrant our concern. Because FMLA leave is unpaid, many eligible workers can’t afford to take it because they do not earn a “family economic security wage.” While 54 percent of White working parents are eligible for FMLA, only 37 percent can afford to take it. And while half of Hispanic and 60 percent of Black working parents are eligible for FMLA, just 21 and 29 percent, respectively, can afford the leave. These grim figures point to the pressing need for paid leave. Fortunately a strong movement is pushing for local, state, and federal laws to guarantee access to paid sick days and paid family and medical leave insurance. Indeed, 19 jurisdictions have passed paid sick days laws, while three (California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) have pass paid family leave insurance laws.

Unfortunately, even when workers are eligible for paid and unpaid leave, many are unaware of their rights; nearly one-third  of eligible employees have not heard of FMLA. Just this week, a new poll found that only 36 percent of registered voters in California are aware of the state’s paid family leave program. What is particularly unsettling about this already meager number is that awareness has actually declined by seven points since it was last studied in 2011. The poll found that Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans are all less likely to know about the program, with Latino awareness dropping by 13 percent since 2011. Lower-income and less-educated Californians were also less likely to be aware of paid leave insurance.

These inequities in access to and awareness of leave could be seen as a slap in the face to King’s legacy. However, an announcement this week by the Obama Administration is a fitting tribute to King and his economic and racial equity values. The president announced strong support for the Healthy Families Act, the federal bill that would create a national paid sick days standard. He also detailed plans to improve federal workers’ ability to take paid leave when they welcome a new child or a foster child. And, Obama announced major investments in programs that would help states study, develop, and administer paid family and medical leave programs. The president’s announcement reinvigorates the fight for universal paid sick time and paid family and medical leave, which, if passed, would be critical to workers of color. Moreover, the national spotlight on these policies, generated by the Administration’s new push, should help raise awareness of existing policies; with awareness levels diminishing since 2011, this is a shot in the arm for paid leave.

As King knew more than half a century ago, the fights for racial and economic justice are inseparable. As advocates, policymakers, and communities seek out solutions to economic inequality, we must take on the racial inequities that perpetuate the problem. All workers need access to labor protections, including fair wages, paid leave, and fair schedules—and where they exist, these protections must be enforced fairly and equitably.

Dec 23, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

The Gift that Keeps Giving: Business Support for Paid Family Leave Is Nation’s Gain

By Liz Ben-Ishai 

This holiday season, as we celebrate time with friends and family, many of us try to turn our thoughts away from work and all those unread emails, files stacked high on a desk, or long shifts at the cash register or waiting tables. But in the U.S., our jobs are intimately tied to our ability to spend time with family, in good times and bad. Most workers depend entirely on their employers’ discretion when it comes to time – particularly paid time – away from work, whether they need that time to raise a glass of egg nog, or engage in less celebratory but equally important activities, such as caring for an aging parent or recovering from serious illness of one’s own. In this country, with no federal law, private employers determine whether and how workers can earn paid sick, medical, or family leave, or vacation time, leaving it entirely up to employers to determine their workers’ – and their families’ – fate.

Some employers are doing the right thing by guaranteeing workers the ability to earn paid time to care for themselves and their families.  However, for the most part, leaving these decisions to employer discretion has left millions without the protections they need. Fortunately, some employers are stepping up to highlight not only the untapped business benefits that many businesses are missing out on by overlooking paid leave, but also the need for public policies to address unmet need.

EILEEN FISHER, a women’s fashion design and manufacturing firm and retailer, is a great example of a ‘high-road’ employer doing well by its own employees and advocating for public policies that would help all workers. Amy Hall, an executive at the company, notes in a recent, widely published op-ed, “[W]hen our employees don’t have to worry about how they’ll pay the bills during an already stressful period in their lives, it’s easier for them to focus when they work, and the more productive they are, the better we all do.” EILEEN FISHER has joined several other forward thinking members of the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), including Uncommon Goods and Better World Club, in supporting the FAMILY Act, federal legislation to create a paid family and medical leave insurance program.

Hall explains, “At EILEEN FISHER, we believe so strongly that this program would be good for the country that we’ve signed on to a petition from the American Sustainable Business Council Action Fund supporting the FAMILY Act. We encourage all businesses to sign on.” She urged Congress to take action on the FAMILY Act in the New Year. Earlier this year, in an op-ed in The Hill, Mitch Rofsky, the president of another ASBC member company, Better World Club, wrote convincingly, “If Congress wants to help businesses grow, it should pass the FAMILY Act and bring the U.S. in line with other developed countries. Businesses, employees—and the marketplace—will be better for it.”

In addition to the splash EILEEN FISHER’s op-ed made last week when it was picked up in dozens of media outlets – and the power of earlier endorsements by other ASBC members – another big name came out in favor of public policies to guarantee paid family leave to workers. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, YouTube CEO Susan Wojicki, recounted her own experience of access to generous paid maternity leave at Google (which owns YouTube). Indeed, Wojicki is about to give birth to her fifth child and will enjoy the company’s 18 weeks of paid parental leave. But while celebrating the good fortune she has at Google, Wojicki rightly says, “[S]upport for motherhood shouldn’t be a matter of luck; it should be a matter of course. Paid maternity leave is good for mothers, families and business. America should have the good sense to join nearly every other country in providing it.”

Hall, Rofsky, and Wojicki join a growing number of high-profile business leaders who believe in public policies that enable working families to take the time they need to care for themselves and their families – and recognize the business benefits of such policies. As 2015 approaches, we expect many more will join the chorus of support.

To see quotes from other leaders who support the FAMILY Act, visit Better Workplaces, Better Businesses, a website sponsored by ASBC, the Main Street Alliance, and Social Venture Network.

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