On Tuesday, I went to the White House where I met President Obama and many extraordinary women who have spent decades advocating for equality. Together, we marked Equal Pay Day, the day to which women have to work in 2014 in order to catch up to what men earned in 2013, by watching the president sign two executive actions designed to remove barriers to equal pay.
Equal pay for equal work is not only a matter of fairness, it’s a matter of rebuilding our economy. What do you get when 52 percent of the population is paid unfairly? You get an economy where 52 percent of the population has diminished buying power. That’s as lousy for business as it is for families. And for women-headed households, particularly single-parent households, the effects are pronounced. We know in Rhode Island women make up the majority of minimum wage workers and are the majority of parents living in poverty.
While the president’s steps this week are important, they won’t solve the problem on their own.
In Rhode Island and nationwide, policymakers must shift our focus to what’s good for the middle class. It’s a strategy that does work: A thriving middle class is widely recognized as one of the key drivers of the prosperity the United States enjoyed in the years after World War II.
Instead of talking about merely creating jobs, we must demand that jobs pay a living and equitable wage, create pathways to success, and recognize the complexity of balancing a career while managing a family. We need economy-boosting jobs, not economy-busting ones.
When I championed Temporary Caregiver Insurance, our state’s new paid family leave insurance, I did so because when a person has to take unpaid leave to care for a family member, that family’s financial security is at risk. Just a few weeks of paid time off means a husband doesn’t need to make the difficult decision between caring for his wife struggling with cancer or paying for groceries. Instead, workers will be able to continue paying bills and putting food on their tables, which in turn helps support our local economy. As of this week, nearly 1,000 Rhode Islanders have used Temporary Caregiver Insurance, including the mother I met recently who had just returned to work after the birth of her baby. Now her husband is home with their daughter for his four weeks of paid leave. That time spent caring for and bonding with their new baby, without forgoing a paycheck, strengthens that family and our state.
When I pushed for the expansion of child care subsidies for people in job training programs, I did so because unemployed people with children are among those who most need to use our job training programs to get ahead. We had set up a system that just didn’t work for parents who are jobless, underemployed or already struggling to pay their bills, and in need of a pathway to a new career. When we talk about rebuilding the economy, we must create programs that work for everyone.
When people work hard, they should be able to get ahead; that’s our American Dream. But unless we demand fair pay for that work, and create a work environment that recognizes that people who go to work still have families and obligations outside of the workplace, it will increasingly become nothing but a dream for most people. We must embrace a strategy that puts people first, strengthens the middle class, and recognizes that businesses will succeed when middle-class families have a little extra in their budgets.
This week, I am joining with state legislators from around the country for a week of action with the theme “Real Prosperity Across America.” By shifting our state’s and nation’s focus to expanding and strengthening the middle class, we can create a Rhode Island – and a country – where we all can work and succeed.