The White House Summit on Working Families showed paths to creating change that work around a gridlocked Congress.
On Monday, June 23, Roosevelt Institute Fellows and Campus Network members attended the White House Summit on Working Families in Washington, DC. The Summit, which was the culmination of months of town halls across the United States, presented the audience with the stark reality that in order to truly help working families, there must be a dramatic culture shift. The day was filled with speakers like the President, the Vice President, and both their wives, and the CEOs of multibillion-dollar companies and startups alike, all of whom shared anecdotes about their experiences as the breadwinners of working families.
The focus of the conference was the need to change the outdated laws and culture that govern the modern-day workforce. Today, women make up 47% of the labor force, and 60% of children grow up in a family where both parents work. The status quo, however, leaves most Americans without access to any form of guaranteed leave, and even fewer with basic necessities such as paid maternity leave. Everyone has endured challenges finding a work/life balance, and as Vice President Biden explained in his own experience, not all employers are as forgiving as the people of Delaware when one needs to miss work to take care of a child. He pointed out that in his first years in the Senate he had the lowest attendance rate — but that his constituents gave him a chance. The summit challenged its participants to bring that kind of culture of flexibility and empathy to the workplace.
The Summit illuminated the two mutually reinforcing paths that are necessary to ensure that working families have the ability to support themselves and care for their children and elderly parents. On a policy front, there is already the Family and Medical Leave Act, which stands as one of the few policy solutions in place to alleviate the burden on working families. However, this only covers 60% of workers and only guarantees unpaid leave, which is often an unworkable option for families that rely on a daily wage. The United States is alone among OECD countries in that we do not guarantee paid parental leave. Paid leave is necessary not only to soften the financial burden associated with having children, but also, as was repeated throughout breakout groups and panels, because parents who take maternity/paternity leave are far more likely to reenter the workforce than those who don’t. There also need to be long-term policy solutions that will ensure that a working family can earn a living wage. The Summit reiterated the push for a $10.10 minimum wage, and invited several business owners who pay a living wage and provide paid leave to share their success stories.
Legislative change is not the only means of tackling this issue, and the Summit pointed out that as long as Congress remains gridlocked, it is up to businesses to implement higher wages and better leave policies on their own. Change at the business level requires that companies change both their explicit policies and their workplace cultures. Both in multinational companies and small businesses, it’s just as important for managers to offer paid leave as it is for them to take it themselves. While many workers in the US do, in fact, have access to some form of leave, workers often do not take full advantage of these benefits because of stigma or because no one else in the office uses all of their leave. The private sector must lead by proving that businesses can provide paid leave without hurting their bottom line (and sometimes even helping it), and by ensuring that people feel comfortable using that leave.
Working families in the United States face numerous challenges, from providing care to their families when they need it to having the resources to do so, but if there was one message that was repeated throughout the Summit it was that there is a tremendous amount of energy to work with. On the legislative front, vast majorities of voters support a higher minimum wage and family leave. While Congress has not taken up the call to action, cities like New York and Seattle have taken it upon themselves to raise wages and ensure time off. The energy around this issue must be channeled in every way possible: by pressuring elected officials to pass laws, by encouraging business to raise their wages, and by fostering a culture where everyone feels comfortable putting their family first.
Julius Goldberg-Lewis is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Regional Coordinator for the Midwest and a Summer Academy Fellow in Washington, DC.
Photo by Pete Souza.