If recent messaging from the White House is any indication, inequality may well be a key theme in the State of the Union speech this week. This much-anticipated speech is the only event in the political calendar that gives the president an opportunity to lay out his priorities for the coming year before Congress and a national audience. We are hopeful that the president will use this occasion to talk more about inequality because as women we understand all too well the urgency of this issue.
Women are among the millions of Americans who continue to suffer the consequences of the recession, which is officially over thanks to the uptick in economic growth. They don't have jobs, or the jobs they do have pay less. Their house may be still "under water." They may be doubled up with friends or relatives. And yes, too many are hungry. And many live in states where they may not have the benefits of expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
We can't leave so many in dire straits. To restore the nation's safety net, at least partially, the president must lead in reversing the lapse of long-term unemployment benefits, which ended December 31, leaving 1.35 million without income support -- a figure expected to grow to 5 million by year's end.
Women are disproportionately represented among those struggling in minimum wage jobs. In the State of the Union address, the president must martial his influence to win passage of legislation now before Congress that would raise the federal minimum and build in increases that keep pace with the cost of living every year. And he must push to end the decades-old freeze of the minimum wage for tipped workers, now $2.13 an hour.
The president must lead in the fight to oppose draconian cuts in food aid to families provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and oppose any proposals to cap or reduce funding, restrict eligibility, reduce benefits, or make harmful structural changes.
Women in the workforce are still denied equal pay for equal work. The president must make clear the need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act and lead the way by issuing an executive order barring federal contractors from retaliating against employees who share information about their wages -- information that can help victims of discrimination fight back.
Women's equality also depends on their right to control their reproductive lives. The president has been clear that every woman needs to be able to make decisions about her own body. In this vein, we call on the president to speak out against the unprecedented number of restrictions on access to abortion at the state level. He can send a strong message on equality by sending Congress a budget that does not include the ban on abortion coverage -- the so-called Hyde Amendment -- that bars abortion coverage from women on Medicaid and other federal programs. Those affected include millions of women who are federal employees, members of the military, veterans, federal prisoners, Peace Corps volunteers, and those who receive care through the Indian Health Service, as well as recipients of Medicaid and Medicare.
Additionally, it's especially important that President Obama educate the public that ensuring coverage of contraceptive and abortion services is a matter of women's religious liberty as well as of their economic security and health. Too often in the public debate, "women's health care" and "religious liberty" are framed as unrelated and diametrically opposed, with an underlying assumption that religious liberty pertains to employers and not to their employees who depend on workplace health insurance.
Finally we call on the president to continue his commitment to reducing violence in our society -- full funding for the Violence against Women Act, measures to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, and continued commitment to reducing sexual assault in the military by ensuring that improvements in the military justice system and in prevention programs. President Obama should augment his anti-trafficking efforts by working to ensure traffickers and buyers -- not the victims -- are penalized, and recognize the unique needs of children trafficked for sex, often through the child welfare system. And, we welcome his creation of a new task force on campus sexual assault.
Inequality threatens the state of our union. Tackling it requires a multi-issue agenda that takes into account the factors that work against equality for women and others disproportionately affected. We will be listening to the State of the Union for a clear message that the president is ready for this fight.