Gillibrand: More Help for Working Women Will Boost the Economy and the Middle Class

By Susan Jones | January 14, 2014 | 9:56 AM EST

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) (AP File Photo)

( - Policies that support women in the workforce -- including paid family leave, "affordable" child care, universal pre-kindergarten and a higher minimum wage -- are key to reviving the middle class, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand  (D-N.Y.) said Monday in a speech at a "social mobility summit" at The Brookings Institution.

As large numbers of women entered the workforce over the past four decades, more of them are now the primary breadwinners, Gillibrand said.

"The key to creating a growing economy and the key to an American middle class that is built to thrive in the 21st century is women. Without a doubt, if given a fair shot, women will be the ones who will ignite this economy and lead America to a revival of its middle class."

She said a "fair shot" means that Congress must reform workplace policies that are "fundamentally stuck in the past."

For example, Gillibrand said women should not have to choose between a paycheck and caring for a sick child or aging parents.

She advocates paid family and medical leave -- to be funded by employer and employee contributions -- so more workers can afford to take time off.

"Choosing between your loved one and your career is a choice that no person should ever have to make. But this is a choice that's happening every single day, and more often than not, it's the woman who will choose to leave the workforce to care for that family member. When they do, they will earn less income. They will miss out on raises and promotions, and they lose out on retirement benefits. This can set women behind, it risks their future success, and it risks the stability of their own families," Gillibrand said.

She added that lack of paid family medical leave also hurts businesses by keeping "some of our most highly skilled, best-trained, hardest workers out of the workforce."

The Family and Medical Leave Act passed by Congress years ago provides for unpaid leave, but Gillibrand said more is required:

"Congress can and should do much more to support these workers and strengthen our economy by expanding paid family medical leave. Under my bill, called the FAMILY Act, we would create a self-funded, paid family medical leave insurance program.

"And it doesn't add one dime to the deficit. Based on successful state models, it works by establishing an independent trust fund supported by both the employee and the employer, contributions of a small amount in their wages.

"It's basically an earned benefit that would make paid leave available to every working American, no matter how big your company is that you work for, a big business or a small business, whether you're part time or whether you're full time. The cost is about the cost of a cup of coffee a week."

Gillibrand also advocates raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, which she said would help 33 million Americans, including 17 million women bring home more pay.

She said "affordable child care" would allow more women to stay in the workforce, rather than return home to take care of their children. She used herself as an example:

"[M]y children were in a day care, and I know the early childhood education they received was tremendous, from the time they were infants straight till they were in kindergarten and fifth grade," Gillibrand said. She also said day care cost her $10,000 a year, something she could afford as a federal worker, but "many moms" cannot. She also got paid time off when she had both of her children. "I know the difference it made for me personally," she said.

On the same day Gillibrand spoke, the White House announced that Kennedy kin Maria Shriver -- the former first lady of California and a former NBC correspondent -- would present President Obama with a copy of her latest report, titled "A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink."

As White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Tuesday: "The report focuses on the millions of women who are working hard but are consistently on the brink of poverty and highlights the need for the nation to address women's role -- dual roles as caregivers and breadwinners and the specific challenges they face.

"As the president knows well, investing in and supporting women over their lifetimes is one of the best ways to tackle income inequality and achieve greater social mobility. And he looks forward to learning about the findings of the report," Carney said.