In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama told the story of Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis, your typical middle-class American family with two kids. Rebekah was a waitress when their first child was born; Ben worked construction. When the recession hit, Rebekah went back to school so she could get a better job. They’re both working hard, but they’re struggling to get by, because, as President Obama pointed out, their child care costs more than their mortgage—a fact that’s true for Americans in 20 states and Washington, D.C.
President Obama used Rebekah and Ben as a jumping-off point to make a full-throated endorsement of high quality, affordable child care. “It’s not a nice-to-have — it’s a must-have,” Obama said of child care. “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.”
This is an extremely important rhetorical shift—the move from child care as a mushy, emotional, frivolous extra, to a serious imperative. And it’s a real leap from Obama’s 2013 and 2014 addresses, where he mentioned the need for universal pre-K, but barely discussed child care.
He went even further in emphasizing his support for working moms and dads by talking about paid parental leave and sick leave, too. “Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers,” Obama said. “Forty-three million workers have no paid sick leave. Forty-three million. Think about that. And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home. So I’ll be taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own.”
We knew some of this was coming, but still: It’s exciting to hear Obama use this moment to make a plea for these things. So how much of it can actually get done? Obama got into some specifics when it comes to child care, saying he will create “more slots” and give middle-class and low-income families a tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year. I have some hope that the latter might come to fruition and actually be helpful. The former is going to take a lot more work, considering that as of 2012, there were only enough slots for 4 percent of eligible children in the Federal Early Head Start program, which serves children under age 3.
Unfortunately, although he said he’s outraged that America is one of the only countries that doesn’t have it, the president mentioned no specifics about making paid parental leave happen. As for paid sick leave, Obama asked Congress, “Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave. It’s the right thing to do.” I will eat my hat if that happens at any point during Obama’s last two years in office.
But enough griping. Words do matter. I’m glad Obama made the issues of working parents a focus of this speech. Because if we’re ever going to make progress on these issues, they need to be brought front and center over and over and over again.