Barbara Reisman spent her career pushing for a better system of child care in America. She was the executive director of the (now defunct) Child Care Action Campaign from 1986 to 1997. If you want to see her in action, you can watch her on C-SPAN speaking at hearings for the Act for Better Child Care Services of 1988 — if nothing else, the grainy footage is a powerful reminder that our foremothers were fighting the good fight on child care when I was, well, still a child.
Regular readers of this newsletter won’t be surprised to learn that the bill, which sought to make subsidized child care services available on a sliding scale for parents “whose family income does not exceed 115 percent of the state median income for a family of the same size,” didn’t pass that year.
In the intervening decades, the pace of progress on a host of family-friendly policies has been glacial at the federal level, though 13 states and the District of Columbia have enacted paid leave laws. Nationally, we have the Family and Medical Leave Act, which turns 30 this year and for covered employees provides 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a one-year period, allowing Americans to bond with newborns or adopted children, care for sick or disabled family members, deal with their own illnesses or emergencies related to a family member serving in the military or take up to 26 weeks to care for a family member in the military who is dealing with a serious injury or illness.
F.M.L.A.’s woefully inadequate, unpaid leave barely covers half of American workers: Per a recent analysis from the National Partnership for Women and Families, “About 44 percent of workers are not eligible for F.M.L.A.-supported leave because they work for small employers (15 percent), do not work enough hours or have not worked for their employer for long enough (21 percent), or both (7 percent).” The roughly one-fifth of workers who have paid leave through their employers, according to a 2020 Bipartisan Policy Center report, are less likely to be among lower wage or hourly workers.
I talked to Reisman last month, and I asked her if there was anything I was missing — had there been moments in the 1990s when we were close to forward movement on paid leave that I wasn’t aware of? Was there anything she had witnessed in her work on child care that Americans who want these policies to come to fruition could learn from?
Reisman told me that she took the role with the Child Care Action Campaign because she wanted things to be better by the time her children had children. “If you ask my daughter today, ‘Did I succeed?’ she would say no,” Reisman said, ruefully.
But that doesn’t mean Reisman feels nothing at all has happened. She believes we’ve made progress in accepting, as a culture, that investing in children and families isn’t just a handout to women. More people — and more politicians — understand that child care and paid leave are policy questions of broader concern, and part of a necessary infrastructure that keeps society going and our entire economy humming along.
It might not seem like progress, but you also don’t typically hear politicians or corporations bemoaning F.M.L.A. these days — its provisions are baked in. Writing for Times Opinion in 2007, Judith Warner described what a “protracted drama it was to get our anemic little version of family leave passed into law in the first place,” noting that Representative John Boehner, who would become speaker of the House, once called F.M.L.A. “another example of yuppie entitlement.” I doubt any member of Congress would say it that way now.
Which brings me to some moderately good news: There’s a bipartisan working group for paid leave in the House, made up of three Republicans and three Democrats. There’s also a new Congressional Dads Caucus, “a group of 20 Democrats aiming to push policies like paid family and medical leave and an expanded child tax credit,” my colleague Marc Tracy reports.
In his reporting, Tracy notes that there’s acknowledgment by some House members of the Dads Caucus getting outsized press coverage, along the lines of: Moms have been talking about this stuff forever, why is the spotlight on dads all of a sudden? And yeah, it’d be nice if, for a change, we just listened to women. But as I argued in 2021 when Build Back Better was on the chopping block, women alone raising the alarm clearly isn’t moving the ball. We need as many people as possible pushing forward, so it doesn’t take another 30 years to get American families what they need. If that means giving men more than their fair share of the credit, so be it.
Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
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