As the Obamas were campaigning for the White House, they were clear about their intent to make our country more “family friendly.” Michelle Obama in particular was open about the fact that she would make advocating for families one of her main projects if she became First Lady.
Well, here we are with the Obamas pretty much settled in to their lives in Washington, D.C. and some things have changed — we’re a little closer to equal pay for equal work (though not as close as we’d be if the Paycheck Fairness Act had been passed along with the Lilly Ledbetter Act). And President Obama made sure there were funds in the stimulus package for increased child care grants to the states to the tune of $2 billion.
That’s a nice chunk of change, but ultimately can the government really pass enough legislation to make us a more family friendly nation? I don’t think so. Things like the Family and Medical Leave Act are necessary, but ultimately I worry whether we can really become a nation that’s just as committed to work/life balance as we are to making a buck if there isn’t an attitude shift on the part of employers. One online article describes FMLA as the “number one headache” of employers, followed by COBRA insurance. With that kind of attitude, one has to wonder how things will get better for families who need a break when employers view these programs as a burden.
We can legislate a lot of things, but we can’t legislate employer attitudes. To change those, we need a major societal shift. And that’s why it’s important for First Lady Michelle Obama to speak out, as she said she would, to start making the case that employers will be the beneficiaries of plans to be more flexible.
As Rebecca Blank of the Brookings Institution wrote at Room for Debate blog:
Mrs. Obama can make it clear that good employers do this, perhaps by recognizing firms known for their family-friendly practices. This doesn’t mean that parents work fewer hours or work less intensively than others, just that they and other workers who face serious family needs have the ability to go to their boss and say: “Can we work out a way in which I can continue to do my job well, but can also respond to the occasional needs of my children or other family members?”
But in our current economy, others are less optimistic that such an argument can win. In a post at Women’s eNews, their Washington Bureau Chief reminds us that:
Prospects for work-family legislation this congressional cycle are uncertain because of the recession, which curtails federal tax revenues and makes money for discretionary programs harder to find …
The First Lady has an amazing bully pulpit. I know she has to pick her battles, but these issues are just as important to our economic recovery as any other. As I wrote last week, why is the focus on jobs that traditionally will go to men? We need a spotlight on other things that will help families move forward and rebuild our economy. Part of that foundation needs to be ensuring that employers understand how they benefit from worker flexibility and family-friendly policies.
Yes, as many conservatives like to remind us, we’re a country founded on personal responsibility and need to put things in place to help ourselves. But that shouldn’t exclude efforts to help all of us take action — sometimes a little shame and some extra pressure from a high-profile advocate can go a long way!