President Obama and Nancy Pelosi have shifted the economic debate in our nation’s capital back onto the right track with a renewed focus on working women and the middle class. The 30-year experiment with supply side economics – including deregulation, cutting taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations, and slashing public investments – has been great for the super rich, but not so good for all the rest of us. Rebuilding a growing middle class, starting with policies that finally break the barriers to women achieving full equality, is the best strategy for getting our economy humming and creating a better future for our children.
When Obama first came into office four and half years ago, he set up a high-profile task force that promised bold action to restore middle-class vitality and the American Dream. But the grim toll of recession, partisan bickering, and the Tea Party backlash – combined with high political costs of passing health care reform – quickly derailed that early momentum. Since 2010, Congress has forced through an austerity agenda, cutting aid to state and local governments that kept teachers in classrooms and cops on the beat, refusing to rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges, cutting services to the most vulnerable, and most recently even slashing food stamps.
Now, five years after financial speculators tanked the world economy, long-term unemployment remains stubbornly high and homeowners are still underwater. Young people are struggling to afford college, graduating with crushing loans, and moving back in with their parents while seeking work in a still-bleak market. 165 years after the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, a woman working full time in the United States earns only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man – with the biggest wage gap right here in the Seattle metro area. Meanwhile, the income and and share of wealth of the top 1% is soaring once again.
The good news is that private sector jobs are finally growing, with some of the strongest growth in the country in King County. Some jobs are in high paying fields like computers and aerospace, but many are in restaurants, retail, and home care, with low pay, part-time hours, and few benefits. No matter how well we educate individuals or promote high wage sectors, our economy will continue to have this diversity. Therefore, what we need to make sure that everyone who works hard can achieve a dignified level of economic security are a combination of policies that build individual opportunity and that provide a platform of basic standards and infrastructure to support thriving communities.
The 6 cornerstones of a strong and growing middle class that Obama laid out in his speech last week are important steps toward individual opportunity and a stronger economy:
- Good jobs, with emphases on manufacturing, new technologies, and infrastructure
- Education, including preschool for 4-year olds and addressing soaring costs for
- Home ownership
- Secure retirement
- Health care – following through on implementing Obamacare
- Ladders of opportunity, including raising the national minimum wage
Obama’s speech was short on specifics, but at least begins to move away from the morass of austerity economics that seems to have trapped DC policymakers and needlessly prolonged the recession for working families. It also falls short in certain key areas that he earlier embraced. Fortunately, Pelosi and other House members are promoting an economic agenda for women and families that fills in some of the gaps with proposals for fair pay, paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave, and affordable, quality childcare.
Will these efforts go the way of the Middle Class Task Force? Not if we keep the pressure on and hold our representatives in Congress accountable for following through.
And a big chunk of this agenda should be front and center for our state policymakers, too. Next year, the Washington legislature can adopt paid sick days, family and medical leave insurance, enhanced funding for childcare and preschool, innovative college financing, and a route to retirement savings for all. And well before then, the Governor can call the legislature back into special session to adopt that transportation package they never should have left Olympia without funding.
It’s good to hear the President speaking out for the middle class again. The middle class needs to speak up for itself, too.