The words poor and poverty seldom appeared in the State of the Union address delivered by President Obama on Jan. 20, but the policies the president proposed would benefit many working and lower income families. The president spoke in favor of expanding child care, instituting paid leave policies for workers and subsidizing community college costs. The speech was met with measured approval from Catholic advocates of social justice, including the Rev. Larry Snyder, outgoing president of Catholic Charities USA, who commended the president’s “bold ideas,” which could “break up the status quo that leaves so many on the sidelines.”
The speech was greeted with less enthusiasm by Republican leaders, who, in light of the Democrats’ lackluster performance in the November elections, marveled at the president’s confident approach. Indeed, as much as we may support President Obama’s desire to help working families, it is difficult, at least at first, to see how he will be able to reach consensus on these divisive issues. There is only so much the president can achieve by executive action.
Yet the State of the Union address may have been the opening salvo in an extended negotiation with Congress. On contentious issues like immigration, a grand bargain that includes concessions to both parties may still be possible. We hope so. Legislative success is needed both to help struggling families and to restore the nation’s faith in the political process. If no progress is made, public esteem for both Democrats and Republicans could fall still farther and pose grave problems for the next administration.
The president was right to focus on working families, which both Democrats and Republicans claim to represent. Whether the two parties work together to bring about much-needed relief for these Americans, who still struggle even as the economy grows, will be a major test. Both sides, for example, recognize the importance of higher education for the long-term financial stability of families. Workers with college degrees fare much better in our economy than those with only a high school diploma. The president hopes to shrink that gap by making community colleges free. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, meanwhile, has proposed an income-based repayment system for student loans, so graduates would not be overly burdened by the costs of their education. Both sides agree a problem exists. We hope there is room for negotiation and solutions that approach the problem from multiple angles.
Compromise may also be possible on the issue of child care and paid medical leave. Traditionally these have been Democratic issues. Last year Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, both Democrats, proposed the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would establish a national paid leave insurance program funded by worker salaries. The bill did not progress far, but as more women take seats in Congress and in the upper echelons of business, there may be more sympathy for the argument that families with two working parents need additional support. This should not be a Democratic or Republican issue. In fact, one could call it a pro-life issue, since it makes our community more welcoming and supportive of families with children.
In a statement commenting on the State of the Union, Father Snyder pointed out that the percentage of individuals and families living at or below the federal poverty line remains roughly where it was at the beginning of the War on Poverty. This is a discouraging fact that should prompt soul-searching on the part of both parties. “People of good will can have disagreements about the strategies to achieve a future without poverty,” Father Snyder said, “but what we cannot do is let divided government or differences of opinion prevent us from working together to strengthen pathways out of poverty for those in need.”
This year the Catholic Church has dedicated itself to reflecting on the challenges facing the family. Issues of divorce and remarriage have drawn much attention, but as our fellow Catholics in developing countries remind us, economic conditions also pull at the seams of the family unit. This is no less true in the United States than abroad. As Clayton Sinyai reported recently on our blog In All Things, marriage rates are higher for men who have stable, family-supporting jobs. “If the new normal is an economy employing large numbers of men at poverty wages,” Mr. Sinyai writes, “we are putting a dreadful burden on the institution of marriage in the interest of economic efficiency.”
To his credit, President Obama understands the vital connections between economic security and the flourishing of the family. His argument for working parents was invigorating to hear. But as any parent knows, supporting a family is the work of daily sacrifice and patient compromise. Creating family-friendly policies will require no less.