Clinton proposes family-friendlier policies

Could her agenda for parental leave help set a new agenda for the presidential campaign?

Published October 17, 2007 3:13PM (EDT)

Speaking Tuesday in Manchester, N.H., Sen. Hillary Clinton laid out her agenda for helping parents balance work and family, the Associated Press reports. "Too many Americans feel trapped between being a good parent and being a good worker," Clinton said. "It's about time we stopped just talking about family values and started pursuing policies that truly value families. All Americans who are working hard and taking responsibility deserve the chance to do right by their children. With sound policies and sensible investments, we can give parents more choices to make the decisions that are best for them. We can make life a little easier for everyone -- for mothers and for fathers -- to do the most important job there is in any society: raising and nurturing the next generation. And that's the right decision for all of us."

Clinton's proposals are not going to turn us into Sweden overnight (France, actually), but considering that these days this kind of support comes to parents mainly in the form of articles offering tips for "make-ahead meals" and "date nights," well, we're listening.

Clinton's plan would:

-- Expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to include companies with more than 25 workers (as opposed to the current 50), thus covering 13 million more employees, and to guarantee every worker seven days of paid sick leave for a family health crisis.

-- Set the goal for all states to implement paid family leave by 2016, offering $1 billion in grants (through a new State Family Leave Innovation Fund) to encourage innovative programs.

-- Include a "federal telecommuting initiative."

-- Increase childcare funding through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (allowing "qualifying low-income families" to stay home with children) and foster public-private partnerships to expand childcare options at the state level.

"This bold new effort will give families the support they need to more effectively balance work and family obligations," reads a Clinton campaign statement, which also notes that it will help prevent discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or other parental care-giving needs. "And it will work in partnership with America's businesses to ensure that pro-family work policies and increasing workplace flexibility help improve American competitiveness and economic growth."

Not everyone on the business end agrees. "Business representatives said state laws on paid leaves were often so broad that they risked abuses like demands for paid leaves for minor health concerns," the New York Times reports. "In addition, the federal law on unpaid leave continues to concern some critics because some workers take leaves with short notice or are difficult to replace. 'Extending the unpaid leave act to smaller employers will just create more problems, especially when the definition of a 'serious health condition' is so extremely broad,' said Randy Y. Johnson, vice president for labor issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce."

And even fans of parental leave, paid or otherwise, say the FMLA, as written, could really use some work.

Of course, 173 other countries appear to have worked this shit out. I'm just saying.

But here we are. And at this point, the mathematics and other particulars are arguably of less importance than Clinton's initiative, in all senses of the word, itself. The Barack Obama and Chris Dodd campaigns have, rightly, rushed to point out that, hey, Obama proposed the seven-sick-days thing back in June, and that, hey, Sen. Dodd [co-] wrote the damn FMLA in the first place -- and recently proposed legislation that would expand the act not only to cover companies with, yes, more than 25 workers but also to provide paid leave for six of the 12 weeks granted by the act. With yesterday's announcement, Clinton may have temporarily stolen some of her opponents' thunder, but I look at it this way: The thunder, as a whole, is growing. A family work/balance agenda could be becoming, dare I say, a must-have. As Obama pointed out in a 2005 speech, "The other side ... make[s] sure that in any given campaign or debate, the only woman's issue that ever comes up is not equal pay or health care or family leave, but the narrowest, most divisive issues like late-term abortion." Perhaps no longer?

Just look: Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, for one, has co-sponsored Dodd's legislation. "Conservative" bosses, here and there, are getting creative. (Even Rudy Giuliani has a family leave policy, which could be summed up as "Yeah. Leave my family alone." Ha, ha.) Of the last election, Republican pollster Frank Luntz noted (PDF) that swing voters tend to be "working women who are both trying to raise a family and hold down a job" and whose "number one issue" is "not education, it's not health care, it's not budgets, it's not even the war ... [It's] the lack of free time. The number one thing that matters to them is that they don't have the time that they want for their job, for their kids, for their spouse, for themselves, for their friends. The issue of time matters to them more than anything else in life ... And right now no one has created ... what I would call the free time agenda. So it's up for grabs. Just like these swing voters are."

Given that exactly zero hours were added to the day since that election, I'm assuming that this agenda is still up for grabs -- and I'm heartened that some candidates are starting to do some grabbing.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

MORE FROM Lynn Harris

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections Barack Obama Broadsheet Christopher Dodd D-conn. Hillary Rodham Clinton