What Bernie Sanders’ Family Values Mean for Women


LIKE ANY clever piece of political rhetoric, the term “family values” gathers together a range of controversial ideas under an innocent and disarming banner. “Family values” has long been the exclusive domain of conservatives who believe that the integrity of the family unit is best preserved by opposing same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception, and sex education.

But family values just got a progressive revamping from Senator and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination Bernie Sanders (I-V.T.), who presented his version of a family values agenda in a press conference earlier this month:

“It is time to join the rest of the industrialized world by showing the people of this country that we are not just a nation that talks about family values but that we are a nation that is prepared to live up to these ideals by making sure that workers in this country have access to paid family leave, paid sick time and paid vacations just like workers in every other wealthy country on earth.”

And Sanders isn’t just throwing around pretty words; he’s actively taking steps to see this agenda through. He’s currently supporting the FAMILY Act, sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), which would give workers 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a baby, for a seriously ill family member, or for themselves in case of serious illness. He’s supporting the Healthy Families Act, sponsored by Patty Murray (D-WA), that would guarantee 7 days of paid sick leave per year. And Sanders himself introduced legislation to give workers 10 days of paid vacation time per year to round out his agenda.

If Bernie’s family values agenda were realized, the benefits to all people – whether single, married, parents, men, women, sick, well – are quite clear. But women in particular stand to gain from the proposal of paid family leave. A research roundup by the National Partnership for Women & Families reports that:

  • Women in states with paid family leave programs are less likely to need public assistance or food stamps
  • Women who take paid leave after childbirth have stronger labor force attachment and are more likely to see increased wages
  • Lack of access to paid leave after childbirth creates a cycle of debt and health issues for low-income women

Not all women who benefit from paid family leave are new moms. Women take on the majority of caregiving responsibilities in this country, making up an estimated two-thirds of informal (unpaid) caregivers taking care of sick loved ones. Also, while results of research vary on the exact figures, it’s agreed that women are more likely to stay home with a sick child who can’t go to school.

Sanders’ pro-people economic policies don’t stop there. To name a few more: He recently introduced the College for All Act, which would facilitate tuition-free public college education. He introduced an amendment to substantially raise the federal minimum wage, which needed only three more votes than it got to pass (did you know that two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in the U.S. are women?). He has strongly opposed free trade agreements like NAFTA and the recent Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that threaten American jobs and open doors to labor abuses and environmental degradation abroad.

Hillary Clinton, Sanders’ primary contender for the Democratic nomination, has a lot in common with him on progressive issues, at least on the surface. She called for paid family leave in a Mother’s Day video last month; she expressed support for paid sick leave in a recent speech. She is in talks with policy experts about student loan reforms toward debt-free college. She has expressed support for an increase in the minimum wage.

But we have reason to be skeptical about Clinton’s commitment to these goals. A quick Google search shows that many writers and analysts express the well-reasoned suspicion that Clinton’s recently-assumed progressive social and economic positions can be traced back to the pressure Sanders’ campaign has placed on hers. Clinton’s history as Senator (D-N.Y.) and Secretary of State attests to the fact that her attention is split between domestic issues and pursuing interventionist military operations abroad and further economic globalization (she only backed down from the TPP once she announced she was seeking the presidency).

Sanders’ 34 years of political service – as mayor of Burlington and as a Congressman in both the House and Senate representing Vermont – show that middle-class and low-income people have always been at the heart of his politics. Unlike Clinton, Sanders doesn’t become embroiled in interventionist military operations or globalization efforts that hurt people here and especially abroad. Also unlike Clinton, Sanders is unfettered by corporate funding and the associated pressure to uphold corporations’ interests over those of people. He is primarily funded by unions – by organizations of workers. By people. And that’s who he works for.

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