Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Women and Girls - Let's concentrate on what the council DOES, not what it IS

Now that we’ve all had a little time to think about the President’s Council on Women and Girls, can we turn our attention to what the council is supposed to accomplish?

To considerable applause (including WOW’s) the President signed an executive order drawing attention to the great differences in how women are treated in schools and in the workplace, in where girls are steered and where women end up. It’s about time. Yes, President Clinton also made a stab at this with a version similar, but that was then and this is now.

After so many years of playing defense, WOW and our sister organizations have an opportunity to play offense as the council goes about its business of examining AND coordinating the federal programs that touch the lives of women and girls (and their families, too). While we wait to see when the council of Cabinet members will meet and what ‘regularly’ will mean we can focus on the first-year priority areas and what we would like to see done about each of them:
· Improving women’s economic security by ensuring that each of the agencies is working to directly improve the economic status of women,
· Ensuring that the administration evaluates and develops policies that establish a balance between work and family,
· Finding new ways to prevent violence against women, at home and abroad, and
· Building healthy families and improving women’s health care.

Yes, we must and do take the President at his word that his administration will see issues like equal pay, family leave, child care, and violence prevention for what they really are—family issues, inter-generational issues, economic issues, and national security issues.

But, how will we measure the success of this council? What would you put on the score card?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Are we looking to defeat poverty or promote economic security?

How do YOU define what YOUR family needs to make ends meet? Do you use your food budget only? Or, do you come up with a real number that addresses your monthly expenses?

Have you ever wondered why many state and federal work support programs use eligibility phrases like 150% of the Federal Poverty Level or 200% of the Federal Poverty Level?

Could it be because practitioners know that the FPL is artificially low? Could it be that they know BOTH parents typically work in low-income households with two adults? Could it be that they know families with young children can spend as much as 1/3 of their monthly income on child care? Could it be that they know what it takes to make ends meet varies from place to place?

For too long our nation has relied on a measure of deprivation to drive our efforts to fight a ‘war on poverty.’ What would happen if the U.S. relied on an index of income adequacy--a measure of what it takes families of different sizes and types to move toward financial well-being in their geographic locations--to drive efforts to lead a ‘movement to economic security’?

Perhaps it is time that we get past the notion that we don’t want to see an increase in the number of people who are determined to be in poverty because (1) the numbers wouldn’t be pretty especially among children and seniors, and (2) because it might require additional funding for safety net programs. Interestingly enough, the Office of Management and Budget could with the stroke of a pen change the methodology for the Federal Poverty Level. And, the OMB answers to the White House which could call on the OMB to do just that.

To his credit, Representative McDermott introduced (and reportedly will re-introduce) legislation calling for the modernization of the federal poverty measure and for the creation of a Decent Living Standard. If you’ve not seen this legislation, take a look. It is certainly a leap in the right direction.

More than a decade ago, Wider Opportunities for Women working with Dr. Diana Pearce to develop a measure of self-sufficiency--a place-based measure that would define what it takes families to make ends meet. Over the years, 35 states and the District of Columbia have developed Self-Sufficiency Standards, and other organizations have developed similar models for their own use and for use in some of the remaining states.

If cities and states recognize the value of using this newer lens to look at family financial health for both policy and program purposes, surely the federal government could do the same.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What do you really have to have to achieve the American Dream?

I asked a couple of college students from different backgrounds what comes to mind first when I say “American Dream.” One said, “white picket fences,” and the other said, “hot apple pie.” Sound familiar? Look familiar?

So I asked another question—is there somewhere you can go to get this American Dream? They both said “school.” What kind? They both said, “College.” Really? When asked what it is that you get at school that gives you the American Dream, one said, “proper credentials,” and the other—“something to show for your hard work, you know, a degree.”

How is it that the land of immigrants, the land of the pioneers, has become the land of the degrees? While I could eloquently describe the virtues associated with holding a college degree and how it is indeed something to aspire to, I will not for the moment. And, I will not write today of all those jobs that pay in excess of $50,000 a year but require something less than a four-year degree—that’s for another day.

I asked these two young college students a more difficult question. Does your belief that a college degree equals a ticket to the American Dream relegate yourcontemporaries and your seniors who lack such ‘proper credentials’ to something less than the Dream? Can they ever achieve it? Ever? Surely that is not the case. This seemed to spur some very deep soul searching belied by their sincere expressions of uncertainty mixed with a little doubt, a little fear and not a few second thoughts.

When asked what the American Dream is, working men and women told a noted pollster it is the ability to earn enough to take care of a family—first and foremost. However, they also believed reaching the American Dream is much harder now than ever before—and may be worse for their children.

Can it be so simple as that? Yes.
Can it be so difficult? Yes.

Even as our nation reels from this seismic economic crisis and our leaders do their best to inject resources, hope and optimism into what is now called our nation’s recovery, we know that millions of Americans were far from reaching the American Dream before the descent into a national economic nightmare.

It is possible that the recovery bill is going to get us moving down the path to a healthier economy. Can we dare to ask that it also put American families back on track to achieve the American Dream? I think we can, we should, and ultimately, we will. If….

If quality jobs are created that pay wages that can support a family—if those wages meet the self-sufficiency standards that have been meticulously created for each county in 35 states and the District of Columbia…or other such measures of income adequacy in the other states.

If those jobs offer the benefits that help families balance life and work.

If those quality jobs are made available to those who have truly been most impacted by the recession—those who were suffering long before.

If those Americans have access to training opportunities in their communities so that they can apply for and get quality jobs in their communities….

If access to training and hiring are open to women and persons of color, especially in occupations where they have traditionally been under-represented.