Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Calling on the candidates to debate real family issues

[Cross-posted from Washington Work and Family Coalition] By || USA Today

Denver student Jessica Smith has launched an online petition to urge tonight’s debate moderator, Jim Lehrer, to ask the candidates to explain their positions on family leave, sick time and similar workplace policies – sign it here.

Recently a group of about two dozen care-giving advocates, many of them children’s advocates too, gathered in a conference overlooking K Street to brainstorm about how to make care policies more prominent in the presidential campaign.

There was a universal agreement from the group that the attention to family-friendly public policy issues in this year’s campaign has been non-existent. I witnessed the gathering and found myself nodding my head as one participant after another talked about how care-giving, family leave and workplace flexibility are urgent issues that have somehow been ignored.

It’s a complaint that’s been raised repeatedly in recent months, including by the Post’s Petula Dvorak who railed against the total disregard among political leaders to acknowledge that we have a full-on childcare crisis in this country.

Now comes a new attempt to force this issue on to the stage, specifically onto to the University of Denver stage tonight during the first presidential debate.

A Denver student named Jessica Smith has launched an online petition to urge the debate’s moderator, Jim Lehrer, to ask the candidates to explain their positions on family leave, sick time and similar workplace policies.

Within hours after Smith posted the petition in late September it received dozens of signatures. By this writing, it was on its way toward gathering 5,000 supporters.

Smith comes to the cause because she has witnessed what our swiss-cheese-like workplace protections can do to parents and children. Smith said when she was 3 years old she suffered a stroke. Her mother had to give up a paycheck and jeopardize her job and health care in order to care for her daughter.

“My mom has told me how she was forced to worry about our family’s finances at a time when I was still in the hospital recovering. Hard-working Americans like my mom shouldn’t be forced to deal with this kind of financial strain when they are caring for sick loved ones. I want our next president to address this problem by supporting paid family leave and paid sick days laws…”

“Presidential candidates can’t talk about strengthening our economy without talking about putting into place these policies that working families need to keep their jobs and pay the bills,” she writes in the introduction to the petition.

A contrarian might say that Smith has a point, but our unsettled foreign policy, dismal economic situation and gaping deficit must take precedence over more mundane domestic issues. I posed this question to Smith.

“Family leave insurance and earned sick days are in themselves economic issue,” she wrote me. “Specifically, economic issues that directly affected my family and affect families all over the country. It’s especially important when the economy is weak; we need to have earned sick days and family leave insurance so that no one has to worry that they are going to be fired for staying home and taking care of a sick child like my mother was.”

Smith added: “I am not surprised the petition is so successful. I knew when we created this petition that family leave insurance and earned sick days affect so many families. If you look at all the comments people have left on the petition with their personal stories you can see these issues are directly affecting families across the country.”

What is surprising, she said, “is that neither candidate has addressed” these issues.

Smith said she has yet to hear from Lehrer. I also sent a query to the PBS NewsHour, over which Lehrer presides, and did not hear back by publication time.

Will Smith venture inside the debate hall to call out a question on the subject herself? Nope, she’ll be outside at a debate rally.

Like many of us, she’ll be watching closely and hoping the notion of family is finally addressed in a substantive way.

Do you think family-friendly policies should be given more attention in the campaigns?

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