The White House Announces a Renewed Push for Balancing Work and Family

Well, this is turning out to be a pretty impressive week for the introduction of progressive ideas in high places. And while it's easy to dismissively say, "um...they're not going anywhere in this Congress," I'd argue that reaction is too short-sighted.

Before we get to the latest salvo, let me set the stage with something I recently wrote about PGEPs--"pro-growth equalizing policies" (and, yes, like everyone else in this town, I've got an acronym problem, or, if you prefer: IGAAP!). PGEP's are policies which both promote macro growth (G) and reduce inequality:

A final example of a PGEP in this space is one wherein "G" [for growth] takes on a broader meaning: policies designed to help balance work and family life. Such policies may or may not increase growth as conventionally measured--though to the extent that they boost worker productivity, they could have such effects--but they are very likely to increase a growth rate that factored in family well-being, including spending quality time together.

PGEPs in this space include paid sick leave, robust maternal and paternal leave policies, worker-centered scheduling, ensuring parents have ample time and resources to care for children and elderly parents (prevent discrimination against caregivers), and affordable, high quality child care.

Well, yesterday the White House announced a renewed push for some of these policies to help balance work and family, including legislation that would allow those without paid sick leave--and that's 43 million workers-to earn up to seven days of paid leave per year, a $2 billion fund to encourage states to develop paid family and medical leave programs, and a Presidential Memorandum directing federal agencies to advance up to six weeks of paid sick leave for parents with a new child.

I've always been struck by how those who need the most flexibility at work, say, a single-parent in a low-paying, hourly job with shaky child care, often have the least flexibility and vice versa--a denizen of the top 1 percent with Cadillac child care can typically take off whenever she needs to. So, in the way I tried to allude to above re PGEPs, ideas like these promote a bit more equity in the system.

The usual suspects--employer lobbies, the Chamber of Commerce--often oppose such measures as they raise labor costs and can cut into profits. The White House argues offers counter evidence:

... a body of research shows that offering paid sick days and paid family leave can benefit employers by reducing turnover and increasing productivity. Paid sick days would help reduce lost productivity due to the spread of illness in the workplace. And these policies can benefit our economy by fostering a more productive workforce. Policies that better support working families can meet the needs of both employers and employees alike, and strengthen America's economy. For this reason, it is no surprise that many businesses see the benefit of employees earning sick days. Two years after passage of a law requiring workers to earn paid sick days in Connecticut, more than three-quarters of employers responding to a survey indicated that they supported the new law, and employers reported that there were little or no negative effects of the new law on their bottom line.

So the forces of darkness and light will scrum over this stuff and hard to imagine it will get very far in DC, though part of the plan--and the WH is smart to go there--is providing states with some resources to explore the feasibility of introducing some of these measures on their own.

But put this together with the Van Hollen tax plan (see link above) and you begin to see an interesting dynamic that I suspect we'll hear more about in next week's State of the Union speech: the economy is reliably growing, and yet too little of that growth is reaching the middle class. Therefore, policy makers must relentlessly work on the policy agenda that will reconnect growth and more broadly shared prosperity.

If that sounds obvious, it actually makes what I believe is a critically important distinction. For all their willingness to acknowledge that inequality exists--no less than Jeb Bush highlights the issue on his new PAC site ("We believe the income gap is real, but that only conservative principles can solve it by removing the barriers to upward mobility")--the heart of the conservative agenda is, in fact, simply more growth. Tax cuts for the wealthy, spending cuts for the poor, deficit reduction, and so on, are always sold as boosting overall growth which will then trickle down and enrich everyone else.

But if we've learned anything about this theory over the past few decades it's that growth is necessary, not sufficient. Of course, I'm not saying seven days of paid sick leave fixes that equation. But I am saying it's part of a reconnection agenda that I for one have been waiting to hear more about for a long time.

This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.

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