#14: Problem solving for women's rights with Democratic Whip Katherine Clark

Mar 8, 2024

Rep-Clark-feedAbout The Episode

Today we’re sharing a bonus episode - on International Women’s Day - with Congresswoman Katherine Clark.

Congresswoman Clark has proudly represented Massachusetts’ Fifth District since 2013, and is currently serving as Democratic Whip after being elected by her colleagues in 2022.

Yes, this makes her the highest ranking woman in congressional leadership - and only one of two women to ever hold this position! 

A working mother herself, Congresswoman Clark tirelessly advocates for policies that support working families. 

Two of the main initiatives she’s fighting for include passing universal childcare and paid family leave, which she believes once addressed at the federal level, will be beneficial to parents, the workforce AND the economy.

Known as a ‘problem solver for women’s rights’, we thought there was no better day to release this interview than on a day created to celebrate women.

In the episode, we talk about how she got into politics in the first place, the lack of progress with universal childcare and resistance to passing paid family leave, and the role companies and individuals play in driving change.

Links & Resources


Disclaimer: This podcast transcript is autogenerated and may contain minor errors or discrepancies

Allison: Congresswoman Clark, thank you so much for joining me today on the False Tradeoff podcast.

Rep. Clark: I am so delighted to be here, Allison. Thank you for having me.

Allison: I would like to start with forcing you to be a little bit more personal than maybe you perhaps are. You are known as an advocate for working parents, parents overall, but especially for working parents. I'm curious if you can share a little bit about your personal journey through working parenthood. Some of the challenges that you've experienced that then convinced you that this should be your top priority in DC.

Rep. Clark: Yeah, well, thank you for that question. And I have to say that politics was not something I thought I would be interested in. Running for office was not even on my radar, but it really is about these issues that we all face as parents and families across the country face. 

And I had my first child, I have three children, who are now young adults and had my first child in grad school, which was its own particular challenge. But things really got tough when I went into public service. I was actually general counsel for the Massachusetts Office of Child Care Services. So working on child care policy while discovering that my entire take home salary was going to child care for my children.

And my husband and I just sort of looked at each other and said, what are we doing? And all those challenges of being the last mom at pickup, hoping you won't get the fine, that a child spiking a fever creates complete havoc on schedules for an entire team, not just for you. And just the expense and the complications. 

And I always had the benefit and I appreciate all the work you have done in the area of parental leave because I always had a job that had it and I had a job, please ignore the bells of congress ringing behind us, but always had a job where I could take time off that was paid. I never had to make the choice that so many parents have to make between getting paid, or caring for a sick child. 

As I got more into policy and used every sort of childcare arrangement from family childcare to center-based care, I realized how critical this issue is, not only to our kids, to the workforce, but to our economy, and that it was an infrastructure, an economic infrastructure that we were really just resting on the shoulders of working parents and that we had to do better as a country and as an economy.

Allison: What strikes me about your story is your story could be my story. My children are very young. Your children are now entering into adulthood or adults already. How is that possible? How has this not changed over that amount of time? I'm curious. Have you seen major changes since you were in those earlier days when your children were really young? What has changed and what has not?

Rep. Clark: Right? Yeah, I mean, I really, you know, it is the frustration of this work is that it is very slow. And I think there are a few reasons for that. And one of them is that childcare is predominantly provided by women and women of color. And women's work has always been a replacement for a government-funded social safety net. So we undervalue women's work of all types. 

We underpay or don't pay equally for women's work. And then we rely on the work of women to care for our own children as they are unable to afford working full-time and more than full-time to care for their own families on the wages they're paid.

So it's a very layered cultural reason why we're here. And it is really gonna take a paradigm shift that we started to see in the pandemic and we need to continue because the pandemic really drew back the curtain on the fact that we can no longer say, oh, this is just a private decision between parents and providers. There is a public good here.

And I know often as a leading Democrat I get many chances to work with the National Chamber of Commerce, but they want to work with me on childcare because they understand this is a workforce issue. And if we want the economy to recover, if we want to continue to have opportunities for women and retain women on workforces, we need to address this issue. And they're all so layered together, paid leave, equal pay, childcare.

And we're behind other developed countries with just an example of toddler care. Other countries invest on average $15,000 of public funds into a toddler's care. In the United States, we invest 500. And that difference makes a huge difference in how kids show up ready for school and how parents are able to participate in the workforce.

Allison: I think about that a lot because I have one child who's in first grade public school and the amount that we celebrated when finally we had access to public free education, which of course is not free. We pay taxes for that. But you know what I mean, we are no longer paying for that private daycare or a nanny or whatnot. And I know that in Massachusetts, and this is at the state level, they recently announced universal pre K starting at the age of four.

And so there are a lot of states, it seems to me, and again, I know way less about this than you do, but it seems like there are certain state initiatives where states are rolling out different programs. How does that impact your work?

Rep. Clark: Yeah, I mean, certainly it is helpful. It is a right step. I just don't see how states can truly help with this conundrum we have in childcare that we pay very low wages to early educators and we have very high costs of tuition for families. And to be able to bridge that, to pull up wages, without further exacerbating the costs of childcare, it's gonna need federal help. And that is what all these other countries have discovered. 

And we are just slow to the game, but we have to take the focus that the pandemic put on childcare and continue to build on that. And we're gonna have to do it with private business, businesses of all sizes have been some of our best partners in helping us redefine childcare and recognize it as this economic infrastructure. So I think it's all helpful, but at the end of the day, we need to make this push. 

And it is childcare and it is also care for adults because I know that was certainly part of my story was still having school-aged children and two parents who were very incapacitated and were not, you know, needed full-time care. And that fell primarily on me. And that is the story of women across this country who are caught in trying to meet their family members' long-term care needs as they age and still having to deal with the high costs of childcare. And we should get out of the fact that, just like you said, Alison, that we celebrate and wait for that fifth birthday, because it means freedom from childcare tuition.

Allison: Right. Yeah, yeah. I want to ask, what does success look like with childcare? And who is stopping us from getting to that point?

Rep. Clark: Yeah, and I think success looks that we can change this model, that we can recognize that from infant, toddler, to preschool care is really part of a public education system and treat it in that same way. This should be, we've gone way past…in our research, in our understanding of brain development, this idea that somehow this is glorified babysitting. We know this is fundamental, and especially for low-income children, the exposure to rich language programs, and social developmental growth. I mean, for all kids, it is a tremendous benefit.

And it is absolutely necessary for so many families who have two working families, our single parent households. We know that, you know, I hear about the high costs from as many grandparents as I do from the parents themselves, because they're watching their children struggle under the cost and not being able to find the childcare that they need.

So success is going to be defined by this recognition of bringing up the professionalization of childcare providers and also helping parents reduce this cost. And it's going to be, we need a sort of a slate of pro-family policies, including paid leave and pay equity, but childcare is really going to be a critical piece. So universal pre-K and really policies where families are not, do not have to spend more than 7% of their income on child care costs.

Allison: You brought up paid leave, so I'm going to run right in that direction. I know, of course, given what we do, everyone in our world desperately wants paid leave on a national level, government funded, ideally 100%, but we'll take less than that. Instead, that is not the case. We thought it was going to pass. Recently it did not, but there are states that are taking up the cause and there are many states now that are providing this program. What have you heard from your constituents, given that you are in a district that has paid leave from the state?

Rep. Clark: Yeah, and it was a long time coming in Massachusetts. I feel like we were late to the game, but we got there. And it's a game changer for families. It really is. 

I remember having a conversation with a woman who's a school bus driver. And she said, I can see that mom from a long way away. And she is putting that child on a bus who is ill and it's breaking her heart, but she has to choose between being able to make the rent, to put food on the table, or miss a day of work for a fever that may have happened overnight. 

And those aren't the choices that we should ask parents to have to make. And it is so fundamental. Yet here in Congress, it's why I am so passionate about electing women. We have many great dads and advocates. But our lived experience with these issues is why we need to bring those voices into the halls of power here and make them heard because there's still great resistance to funding these programs. 

Let's make it unacceptable that we do not have national paid leave, that we do not have greater subsidies for childcare so that families cannot just serve their children's early childhood but thrive.

Allison: I find it to be very embarrassing that we are virtually the only country that does not provide paid leave or have any paid support whatsoever on a national level. What is the argument against paid leave? Why does it not exist? Is it a business capitalist argument?

And if so, I'd love to unpack that because I am also a small business owner and I desperately want it for my business. I believe it will be good for my business. And so I continuously find myself being confused about if I think the number is like 87% of Americans support this. Where's the resistance? Is it business? Capitalism? I don't know. I don't understand it.

Rep. Clark: You know, I can't say I understand it myself, but I can tell you that the Democrats in the house have been firmly behind this and we just cannot get our Republican colleagues to go along. And we make a lot of investments in this country and our budgets are really a blueprint of our values. 

And so we're, we're…there's a lot of rhetoric. I don't think you will hear any member of Congress on the campaign trail who doesn't talk about fighting for families and kitchen table issues and wanting to make things better for folks at home. But where are your votes? Where's the money? Like, let's get going. 

There's no better investment. And if you just want to look at the economics of it, this isn't like something nice we do for parents. These are hard dollars that lead to our economic success and, and remain a global economic success. And so we are the richest country in the world and we need to be looking ahead and saying, how do we invest in families now? How do we invest in women in this country?

And unfortunately we are seeing, um, sort of an extremism takeover that leaves no room for discussion, whether it's reproductive freedom, the impact on women's healthcare, to these fundamental issues of supporting families who are working to have a fair shot as I travel around the country, and red states, blue states, purple states, all over. This is not a partisan issue. This is an issue about building strong families, strong communities, and a strong economy. 

So this resistance is very hard to understand, but I think that we can't underestimate the obstruction that is happening. We've gotten so close to universal pre-K, so close to paid leave, but it always ends up on the cutting room floor.

And we just have to, as we go into 2024, I hope that everyone who listens to your podcast will know the power of their voice and their advocacy. And you can look at the chaos and dysfunction and it's like, it's easy to tune out Washington because it is crazy to watch. And I think the American people are often looking at what's going on here and saying, where do I fit into this?

But know that you have a lot of power. And when you're at a local election or a local forum - to congressmen, senator, presidential, raise the question, where do you stand on parental leave? Where do you stand on childcare? How are you going to help my family and my children be successful? 

And know that your voice does matter, that advocacy, that talking, building networks, the work that you're doing, not only in your small business, but raising these issues around parenting in 2024 in America, it makes a difference and you do have influence. And I just hope that people know the power of that.

Allison: I love that. And I totally agree with you. I think that we have so many people who are so passionate about this. And the more that we talk about it, the more we will slowly continue to push this forward. 

What can companies do in the private sector to support this? Because in our business, I live in this world of the haves, not the have nots. We sell a career coaching program, manager training. We work with companies that are very generous with paid leave, but they're funding it all themselves.

And I constantly am asking myself, okay, but what can they do? Or even company leaders that are not providing generous paid parental leave today, what role do private companies have in convincing politicians that this is something that they want, that is actually good for business?

Rep. Clark: Yeah, a huge role. It's a huge role. There are lots of powerful influences here in Congress, but business, corporate America has a huge influence, especially on my colleagues across the aisle. And they need to hear from businesses, not only the success when they are offering private benefits of childcare, when they are offering rich paid leave, the difference in their retention rates, tell those stories, but we need those voices to come. 

And I can tell you that I see some of the largest corporations in the world come through my doors and meet with me to really small businesses in my district that I talk to. And every single one of them is struggling with the workforce and retaining people and getting the employees that they need for their businesses. 

And there is such a direct tie to the government's role in helping with these programs and helping with these costs. And so we need those voices. We need more of the chambers of commerce, of our business leaders saying, this is economics 101, and we wanna build a great roaring economy together and we don't want to leave families on the sidelines. And that is going to take government funding.

Allison: I love to hear that. I think I completely agree with you that there are a lot of private companies that are providing band-aid solutions and that's great, but it's never going to be the end solution. And I think the one message that I would really want the other side of the aisle to hear is that I too am a capitalist and really want businesses to do well. 

And from my perspective as a small business owner, every time that I have somebody who is going on paid leave in a state that offers a government program, I am so happy. It is so good for our business. We are able to hire more people and we are expanding the pie for everyone by just getting a tiny bit of help to help us support those folks to go out, take the time that they need and then come back. 

And I think like where I struggle the most is I have an idealistic vision of where we can end up. But can't we just start with a little bit? Like, let's start with a little bit and iterate on it. I think what's hardest for most, and I'm speaking for all the people that I talk to every single day, what's hardest for us is why is it zero? Why do we have nothing? You know, let's start with something small. It doesn't need to be great. Let's start with a few weeks and then see how that goes. Let's test it. 

I guess the final question that I have for you, because I know you're very busy and I wanna be respectful of your time, give us some hope. What are our chances of actually seeing something? What needs to happen to get either on the childcare side, more support on childcare, or paid family leave?

Rep. Clark: Yeah, well, let's not make it an or. We need both. And listen, we'll move incrementally if we have to. But there is a growing sentiment that it is long past time we did this. 

And let me just use one example that I think is one that shows the power of these programs, the power of investing in families. And that was the child tax credit that came out of the pandemic, fully refundable. And we halved child poverty in this country in six months. And unfortunately that has gone away and we've seen child poverty again on the rise, but we can do this.

These are programs that, you know, we heard every excuse, the IRS won't be able to do it, refundable is too hard, it's, you know, this is gonna be so difficult. They put that program up with 98% effectiveness in four months and within six months of the program, have child poverty. And so we just have to not give up. 

We have to demand that this is, as much infrastructure as our roads and bridges and investment and broadband, that this is absolutely critical to maintaining a globally preeminent economy. We have to invest back in families and there's no better use of people's tax dollars and the growth of business and capitalism like you said, like these are so tied together. 

This is not some other program, these are absolute necessities for continuing to have opportunity and growing opportunity and having the workforce of the future that we're going to need.

Allison: I will end it at that because I could not have said it better myself. Thank you so much for being with me today and keep fighting the good fight. There are a lot of people behind you cheering you on. We want these issues to continue to move forward at the national level. So thank you so much for your time today.

Rep. Clark: Well, thank you, Allison, and thank you for being an amazing partner in this work.