At Republican Debates, Little Substance on Issues Facing Working Women

Last night’s GOP debate focused on economics, and I was watching to see if a single Republican candidate – really, anyone – would have anything to say about the challenges facing working women.

Marco Rubio stood out as the only one. When asked whether his plan to expand child tax credits was just “another expensive entitlement program,” Rubio talked about how expensive it is to raise children and pulled out the statistic – developed by a liberal think tank, the Economic Policy Institute – that in two-thirds of states, child care costs more than college.  He talked about the bind faced by Americans who “don’t know how they’re going to make that [child care] payment every month, and if they can’t make it, they can’t work, because someone needs to watch their kids during the day.”  While Rubio didn’t frame unfordable childcare as a women’s issue – he talked about the concerns of working parents generally – he brought attention to an issue that profoundly affects women’s labor force participation.

That was a refreshing contrast from some of the nonsense spewed at the last Republican debate on October 28.  That debate featured a specific question about what could be done to close the gender gap in wages, but Republicans had nothing substantive to offer.  Ted Cruz paid lip service to “the struggle of single moms,” but he scoffed at laws that police gender discrimination, brushing them off as “more government control over wages, and more empowering trial lawyers to file lawsuits.”  Cruz blamed “the big government economy” for leaving women struggling, even though, of course, the size of government has nothing at all to do with the size of the gender gap.   Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican debate, piled on using discredited statistics to validate the outlandish claim that “every single policy [Hillary Clinton] espouses, and every single policy of President Obama has been demonstrably bad for women.”  No other Republicans jumped in to address the gender wage gap.

The tone was radically different at the last Democratic debate on October 13, where candidates repeatedly expressed interest in policy initiatives to improve women’s workforce outcomes.   When the Democratic candidates convened in Las Vegas, candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both went out of their way to speak about the importance of equal pay for equal work – even though they weren’t asked any specific questions about the gender wage gap.  We also heard strong endorsements of paid family leave from Clinton, Sanders, and Martin O’Malley – who, a month later, are the only candidates left in the Democratic race.  Clinton put the issue front and center in her opening statement, saying “it’s about time we had paid family leave for American families and join the rest of the world.”  Sanders called it “an international embarrassment” that we do not provide paid family and medical leave.  And O’Malley promoted his state’s expansion of paid sick leave and recounted the “juggle” he and his wife had experienced in trying to keep their jobs with four young children at home.

I’m hoping the next debate for the Democrats, which is this Saturday night, will go into even more detail on the challenges facing working women.  But I’m not expecting much from the next Republican debate.

Alexandra Harwin

Ali Harwin has been working on protecting the rights of women for her entire career, most recently in the NY office of Sanford Heisler, LLP. Before focusing on employment discrimination matters, Ali worked in family law and in economic policy research. Ali loves to write, and loves even more her husband and her child and the attendant adventures in egalitarian parenting that come with that love.

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