I, like many in the region, sat down to watch the President’s State of the Union speech last night. It’s an annual event that always engenders much anticipation (at least among the media pundits, political junkies, and those living in and around our nation’s capital), and this year was no exception. Many called it “the” campaign speech, kicking off the 2012 election cycle. Just a day before the speech, the White House said that the President would “outline his vision for an America where hard work and responsibility are rewarded, where everyone does their fair share, and where everyone is held accountable for what they do.” Economic fairness was lauded as this year’s theme.
As I listened to the speech, I thought about the work that we do at The Women’s Foundation and the intersection between the federal policies discussed and the reality that women and girls in our region face, and I was once again struck by the huge disconnect that we continue to see.
The theme of the speech—economic fairness—sounds quite simple and logical. The President spoke about how his grandparents contributed to a post-World War II “story of success that every American had a chance to share – the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.” He called this “the defining issue of our time,” saying, “No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” Who can argue with that? Hard to disagree with the logic, so why can’t we get there?
Ask anyone who is out in the community, working in the trenches, and they will tell you that it’s not easy. The issues facing our nation and our local community are incredibly complex and they didn’t just pop up overnight, which means that the solutions are not simple, one-dimensional responses, and the problems won’t be solved with a blink of the eye.
Take the President’s commitment to train people with skills that will lead directly to jobs and his call to cut through “the maze of confusing training programs.” Sounds like a no-brainer — of course we should train people with skills that lead to jobs; but just this past week we were once again reminded why something that may seem intuitive isn’t. WAMU aired a report investigating D.C.’s job training programs and detailed the disconnect between some of the programs that are receiving funding, the skill sets required for the jobs people were being trained for, and ultimately, the availability of these jobs. The example cited was the 4,000 people trained to earn a Commercial Drivers License and the 90 people who were ultimately hired by metro, the region’s largest CDL employer. How can there be such a disconnect?
Additionally, DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a Grantee Partner of The Women’s Foundation, released a resource map offering a snapshot of the city’s investment in workforce development over the course of one fiscal year. The map details more than 30 programs and services across a dozen city agencies. It’s hard to imagine how someone could possibly navigate the system in the best of times, say nothing about the worst of times.
As we think about the worst of times and the state of our economy, the President rightly devoted a great deal of his speech to jobs. And while he called for equal pay for women, the majority of the jobs-related portions of the speech focused on nontraditional jobs where women continue to be underrepresented and face numerous barriers to obtaining and retaining these jobs. Isn’t it time that we give equal weight and value to ensuring women are paid equal wages for equal work? Doesn’t that fundamentally fall into the economic fairness category? Are we ok with telling our girls to work hard and get a good education only to be paid 77 cents on the dollar?
Calling on every state to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18 is a commendable goal set forth by the President. There is no doubt about the importance of graduating high school and pursuing post-secondary education and training. Our research demonstrates the drastic earnings differential based on educational attainment. Women in this region who do not have a high school diploma earn just over $18,000 per year compared to women with a graduate or professional degree who earn over $70,000.
But it’s not quite as cut and dry as simply saying that we’ll require everyone to graduate. Are we prepared to tackle the myriad of issues that cause youth, particularly girls, to drop out of school? Generational poverty, family unemployment, violence, and teen pregnancy are just a few of the laundry list of issues that are at the crux of drop-out rates.
So how do we get there? Last night, the President reminded us that “no one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs.” Well, there is no better time than now for our community to pull together to ensure that the Washington region is a model community where economically vulnerable women and girls have the resources to thrive. Now is the time to work together toward innovative, multi-dimensional solutions that put women and girls on a path to prosperity. Let’s break the disconnect. Where would you start?
Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat is vice president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation.
Photo credit: WhiteHouse.gov