I get it. The two nights of Democratic debates were packed with too many candidates, moderators, and issues to track. The debates were exciting, gut-wrenching, and substantive, and they covered a wide range of threats, travesties, and kitchen-table challenges, all of which deserve attention. And seeing six women on the stage over the past two nights was a thrilling game-changer.
That left us with this tally: One question — and one acknowledgment — of the gender-based pay gap (former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard inexplicably pivoted away from discussing equal pay). Two mentions of paid family leave, the first from former Rep. John Delaney early on night one and the second on night two from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has made paid family and medical leave a centerpiece of her work in the Senate and is committed to enacting her campaign’s Family Bill of Rights within her first 100 days. Two references to the Equal Rights Amendment (Secretary Castro and Sen. Kamala Harris). A handful of references to child care and pre-K (Gillibrand, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Mayor Bill de Blasio).
The fact that the moderators asked just one question about these issues over two nights is stunning. And that most candidates failed to weave these policies into their answers about the economy, jobs, and healthcare was a lost opportunity to speak to women, who are 47% of the U.S. workforce, 51% of the population, 57% of Democratic primary voters, and 64% of breadwinners in families with children, and for whom work and family challenges and the struggle for workplace dignity are all too common.
All of these issues — and the intersections among them — deserve more attention, but paid family and medical leave would touch the greatest number of people over their working lives. It’s also an issue that excites Democratic primary voters in early states, appeals broadly to voters nationwide across the political spectrum, especially women of all backgrounds, and has a chance of moving through Congress this year.
Ahead is a roadmap for candidates and moderators to do better next time.
Step 1: Show us you’re human. Paid family leave quite literally has the capacity to affect every U.S. worker and their family — and it can be a connection point between candidates and voters. On night two, as part of a lively discussion on healthcare, we heard from four of the men on stage about personal family and health issues. South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg mentioned his father, who passed away earlier this year; Biden recalled the need to be with his sons as young boys as they recovered from a tragic accident and to be with his son, Beau, at the end of his life; Sen. Michael Bennet shared that he had a recent bout of cancer and that his daughter had an appendectomy; Rep. Eric Swalwell touted his fidelity to changing his baby’s diapers. Klobuchar has previously discussed the importance of paid leave in her own life as the mother of a medically fragile newborn.
Step 2: Show us you see us. Next time, the candidates should acknowledge that time to care — to see a baby’s first smile or hold the hand of a parent taking their last breath — is too rare and must change. Today, 83% of the workforce is without access to paid family leave and more than 60% is without short-term disability insurance for paid personal medical leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women, low-wage workers, and workers of color are most likely to be without paid leave and also most likely to be family caregivers, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. They’re also key constituencies as we head into 2020.
Step 3: Bring us together. If candidates embrace paid leave and give it the attention it deserves — that we and our families deserve — the issue could not only energize women and people of color, it could also be the connective tissue that brings together seniors, "sandwich generation" workers, and millennials; rural and urban voters. It could bolster candidates’ bona fides on gender equity, economic inequality, and entrepreneurship for the audiences that care most about each. That’s because access to paid leave would help close the gender-based wage gap and boost women’s employment and earnings, strengthen retirement security, re-orient caregiving norms to include people of all genders, and level the playing field for small businesses. It would also reduce healthcare costs and improve access to healthcare services.
Step 4: Pick and champion a policy. The candidates in the field have strong records on which to build a robust debate. Every current or recent former member of Congress running for president is a supporter of Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s FAMILY Act, which would create a national paid family and medical leave insurance fund that would cover nearly all working people in the U.S. for up to 12 weeks when they need time away from work to care for a new child or address a serious personal or family health issue. Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee signed one of the nation’s most robust state paid leave laws, which will go into effect just before the Iowa caucuses next winter. Mayors Buttigieg and de Blasio adopted paid parental leave programs for the public employees in their cities. Even President Donald Trump has proposed six weeks of leave for new parents. Candidates’ lived experiences, policy expertise, and worldviews make this issue ripe for discussion and differentiation.
Step 5: Be part of the paid leave action on all fronts. Finally, paid leave is having a moment borne of a growing movement. The 2020 campaign season is happening amid the growing potential for paid leave action in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate; progress in states like Connecticut, which just passed the nation’s seventh paid leave law, and Oregon, which may soon pass the eighth; and new company policies, like those at the fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen and mega-retailer Target, which show businesses are increasingly aware paid leave has value that offsets their costs.
So, to the entire field: Let’s see you do better. When you hit the stump this weekend and take the debate stage in Detroit next month, don’t forgo the chance to connect with voters — especially women — about the issues that deeply affect their work, families, and economic security. To debate moderators and journalists: Ask the questions. Women are watching and waiting to be seen.
Vicki Shabo is a senior fellow at New America, a think tank focused on renewing America, in Washington, D.C. Shabo has testified multiple times in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures about the need for improved workplace policies, including paid leave, and in 2016 successfully advocated to the Democratic Party Platform Committee for a plank endorsing a 12-week national paid family and medical leave program. The views expressed here are her own.