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Obama promotes economic opportunity for women urges equal pay for equal work

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Believing something needs to be done to ensure equal pay for equal work, President Barack Obama promoted on Thursday, March 20, 2014 women's economic problems and "a women's economic agenda that grows our economy for everybody," as part of his economic opportunity program at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida. The president held a roundtable discussion on the issue and then delivered remarks at the college surrounded by 25 women students and workers at the college that would benefit from his 2014 women's economic agenda, which consists of equal pay for equal work, guaranteed paid leave, and an increase in the minimum wage.

The president chose to speak at Valencia College because 56 percent of the student body is female, and that it was the first winner of the Aspen Prize, which "recognize[s] exceptional community colleges." Obama praised that "Valencia graduates are leaving here ready for a career; ready to continue their education; ready to pursue their dreams, wherever they may lead."

President Obama delivered remarks at the event, where he discussed his economic opportunity program, and particularly ensuring American workers are paid what they are worth, which can be accomplished by both raising the minimum wage and ensuring there is equal pay for equal work.

The president is trying to court women to vote for Democrats in this year midterm elections, women vote for Democrats slightly less in midterm elections, than presidential election years, 52 percent to 54 percent. The president is trying to reverse the trend, especially with holding on to control of the Senate in the balance. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, the Democrats still have an advantage with women, 50 percent to 42 percent.

Listing the various highlights of the economic recovery and growth, Obama expressed that it has only been the higher income bracket that have benefited from the economy's turnaround, and that those in the lower and middle-class income brackets are still struggling. The president explained; "Here's the problem… the economy is starting to grow, but some of the trends that have really battered middle-class families… Folks at the top are doing better than ever, but over the past four years, average wages have barely budged. So you've got too many Americans who are working harder than ever just to keep up."

President Obama again stated the central purpose of his economic program; "And it's our job to reverse these trends. We've got to build an economy that works for everybody, not just for a few. We've got to restore opportunity for all people -- the basic idea that no matter where you started, no matter what you look like, if you work hard you can get ahead. America has got to be a place where if you're responsible and you apply yourself you can make it."

The economic opportunity program has four parts, which the president again reiterated; creating good paying jobs, technical job training programs, education initiatives from Pre-K to college, and "making sure that our economy rewards the hard work of every American with wages that you can live on, savings you can retire on, health care that's there when you need it."

The speech Obama delivered repeated many of his statements and themes from previous remarks and addresses on his economic opportunity program, the purpose and elements of the program, his call for 2014 to be a "Year of Action," where the president has pledged "Wherever I see a chance to go ahead and expand opportunity for more Americans, I'm going to take it. I'm not going to wait for Congress. We've just got to go ahead and get it done." Obama recounted his executive actions this far, his executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers, and the presidential memorandum he recently signed to revise and expand the threshold and rules for overtime pay.

Now President Obama is turning his focus towards economic problems women workers particularly experience; "As part of making sure our economy rewards the hard work of every American, I'm also coming here today to make sure that our economy rewards the hard work of women." The president described why the issue is important to him personally, saying; "First of all, women make up 80 percent of my household if you count my mother-in-law. And I always count my mother-in-law. But I also personally know the challenges that women face in our economy, and there are some particular challenges that women face."

Obama recounted the hardships of his single working mother, his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama who worked when their two daughters, Malia now 15 and Sasha, 12 were small. The president expressed that "And I want to make sure my daughters are getting the same chances as men. I don't want them paid less for doing the same job as some guy is doing. When they have children, I want to make sure that they're not having to quit their jobs, or in some other fashion be hampered because we don't have the kinds of policies in this country that support them."

According to the president equal pay is an important issue because "Women make up about half of our workforce. ... In fact, for more than two decades, women have earned over half of the higher education degrees awarded in this country. So that means soon, for the first time, America's highly educated workforce will be made up of more women than men." Obama indicated the benefits of the legislation not only for women, but for families and the economy; "So this is a family agenda. But it starts with making sure that every woman is getting a fair shot. It's time for a woman's economic agenda that grows our economy for everybody. Now, that begins with making sure women receive equal pay for equal work."

Focusing on a theme that society and pay for women is behind the times, Obama stated that "But the thing is, our economy hasn't caught up to that reality yet…. Today, more women are their family's main breadwinner than ever before. But on average, women are still earning just 77 cents on every dollar that a man does. Women with college degrees may earn hundreds of thousands of dollars less over the course of her career than a man at the same educational level. And that's wrong. This isn't 1958, it's 2014." Continuing on that theme, Obama expressed in general that "It's time to do away with some of these workplace policies that belong in a "Mad Men" episode. We've got to make sure that every woman has the opportunities that she deserves -- because when women succeed, America succeeds."

The president reminded the audience that first bill he signed as president was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which "made sure that it was easier for women to sue if they weren't being paid the same as men," emphasizing the importance of the issue to him. The next step however, is to urge Congress to pass Paycheck Fairness Act, which as Obama always likes to state, does not have Republican support.

President Obama believes that it needs to go beyond equal pay to ensure women are treated fair in the workplace and part this revolves around allowing paid leave for women is they have an emergency and need to take sick days, parental leaves or maternity leave, because as the president joked; "A woman deserves workplace policies that protect her right to have a baby without losing her job. It's pretty clear that if men were having babies we'd have different policies." Obama called on Congress to pass legislation to secure paid leave for women. Previously accoring to the Washington Post, Obama "supported the Healthy Families Act," additionally Obama's budget includes funding for sick leaves.

Part of fairness towards women in the workplace, is raising the minimum raise which the president has pushing for since delivering his State of the Union address in January. Obama wants to lift the wage up from $7.25 to $10.10 for all American workers by 2016, and continued to urge Congress to pass legislation. Women compromise a majority who would benefit as the White House Council of Economic Advisers report released earlier in the month stated; "Crucially, raising wages for women means raising income for families, as women continue to account for a rising share of family income."

The proposed Senate bill to raise the minimum wage is sponsored by two Democrats, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and California Representative George Miller. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV has promised the president that he will put raising the minimum wage to a vote in March, but with a few days left after Congress returns from a recess that does not seem that possible now. The bill would face opposition in the Republican House of Representatives from the Speaker John Boehner, R-OH who has numerous times stated that raising the minimum wage will result in less jobs for the lower income bracket.

Obama concluded; "on each of these issues, members of Congress will have to choose between helping women and families get ahead or holding them back…. But in the meantime, we're going to keep making the case as to why these policies are the right ones for working families and for businesses."

The White House released an associated fact sheet entitled "Expanding Economic Opportunity for Women and Working Families" that accompanies the president initiative to ensure equal pay for women. Additionally, Obama wants to provide opportunity for women to have access to higher education, because as the White House explains; "earning a college degree remains one of the surest pathways into the middle class." Women are attending higher education more than ever before with an increase since 2000 of 20 percent for four-year degrees, and 50 percent for two-year degrees.

This includes 2-year post secondary degrees where 34 percent of women are enrolled, a larger percentage than men. The women also face financial constraints where they "are disproportionately dependent on financial aid, and many enrolled women, especially those over the age of 25, are mothers, meaning they have additional considerations on their time and finances as they work to achieve their educational goals." The administration is planning three remedies to this problem; creating an American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), increasing the amount awarded for Pell grants, and "keeping student loan interest rates low."

The president is continuing with his push with advocating for education and training in STEM subjects, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math this time specifically for women in mind, because women in those fields earn 33 percent more than women in other fields. The administration wants to boost the number of women in science related careers, because the numbers have been stagnate for nearly 10 years. The administrations initiatives include; "increasing STEM mentorship"; "providing real world job experience to high schoolers" and "job-driven training."

There is little specific action President Obama can accomplish without Congress at this point on either equal pay or universally raising the minimum wage. However, the president is launching "five regional forums on women's issues" and this summer on June 23, there will be a White House Summit on Working Families, which the president is hosting. The White House announced the "forums will take place in Denver on April 11; Chicago on April 28; San Francisco on May 5; Boston on May 19 and in New York City (date to be announced)."

Earlier this month, on March 12, 2014 President Obama met with women Congressional members at the White House to discuss his "2014 women's economic agenda" including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-CA and Senator Patty Murray, D-WA. , where he discussed his agenda, and first announced his summer White House Summit on Working Families. On the same day, the White House Council of Economic Advisers released a report on "the state of the workforce women" which determined that despite much advances, especially regarding education, women still learn less, on 77 cents of the dollar men earn in the same work.

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Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.

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